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A local look at charter schools in South Kitsap

After a hard-fought battle, the charter schools measure, Initiative 1240, has squeaked through in Washington state 50.8 percent to 49.2.

Charter schools legislation has appeared on Washington state ballots four times since 1996, three times as initiatives and once as a referendum. All three times in the past it was denied by voters. This time, however, the measure was able to pull enough votes for a narrow victory.

Kathryn Simpson, South Kitsap school board president, said the board was generally against the initiative, but never developed an official stance.

“It’s the matter of the particular language of this initiative,” Simpson said.

Simpson said she felt I-1240 has redeeming qualities concerning things like exemptions for charter schools, but she believes charter schools shouldn’t be the only ones.

“If it’s good enough for the charter school goose then it aught to be good for the public school gander,” Simpson said.

The majority of voters in Kitsap County voted in favor of the initiative, 52.1 to 47.9 percent.

“I think that many voters across the state, and not just in Kitsap County, have a misperception that public education is failing in Washington state,” Simpson said.

The passing of I-1240 makes Washington the 42nd state to implement legislation allowing for the creation of charter schools.

Exactly what effect 1240 will have on the more than 1 million students in Washington remains unclear.

Simpson said she doesn’t think the initiative will have an immediate effect on South Kitsap, nor does she see it having too much of a long-term influence in the district.

“I don’t see South Kitsap lacking in the ability to compete with charter schools because we are so focused on helping every student be successful,” she said.

The passing of I-1240 allows for no more than 40 such schools to be opened during the next five years, with no more than eight opening per year.

Public schools are funded and operated by the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. The schools would answer to a government-appointed commission, and not the superintendent’s office. Dorn believes the measure may need to be overturned.

Dorn highlighted the number of schools in Washington that are already enacting innovative plans, such as Tacoma School of the Arts and Bremerton’s Washington Youth Academy.

Nearly all of the 22 schools on the superintendent’s list are located in the largest urban areas of the state, with a total enrollment around 10,000. The thin spread of these schools raises for Dorn the same problem opponents of I-1240 raised toward charter schools: they serve only a tiny portion of students in the state.

I-1240 has come on the heels of a State Supreme Court ruling in January that the Legislature was failing to meet its constitutional requirement to, “Make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders,” (State Constitution, art. IX, sec. 1).

Simpson said that despite the state’s lack of funding, public education has continued to improve and make important gains. If the state would fully fund public education they could do an even better job, Simpson said.

“We have some things we need to improve, when overall the quality of education in South Kitsap and across the state and across the country has dramatically improved despite the lack of funding in this state,” Simpson said.

The cost to implement a charter school program in the state has been a central argument surrounding I-1240, considering the recent ruling.

Estimates listed within the initiative’s description on the Secretary of State’s website show the fiscal impact to be about $600,000 a year for the first five years.

The state budgeted more than $8 billion to the Superintendent of Public Instruction for K-12 education in the 2009-11 biennium.

The Washington Education Association, a state teachers union, is among the initiative’s opposition. It lists the “siphoning” of funding from public schools among its reasons for opposing the initiative.

Opponents claimed that charter schools will pull needed money away from already financially struggling public schools and will, in return, only benefit a small number of students.

Many who opposed the initiative see it as an unnecessary and unproven method that merely gets in the way of solutions already taking place.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University partnered with 15 states and the District of Columbia to look at the result of charter school implementation throughout the country.

Two parts of the study deserve highlighting. The first is stated in the study’s introduction: “The results vary strongly by state and are shown to be influenced in significant ways by several characteristics of state charter school policies.”

The second part is not encouraging news for charter school proponents. Despite the variance from state to state, the study claims that as a whole nearly half of charter schools perform no better than their traditional counter-parts, and 37 percent “produce learning gains that are significantly worse” than traditional public schools.

Only 17 percent delivered better learning gains than traditional public schools.

A major complaint against charter schools in the U.S. has revolved around for-profit organizations taking over public instruction through the use of charters.

I-1240 seeks to prevent this by only allowing nonprofit organizations to manage charter schools. These organizations also cannot be religious or sectarian in nature. So no public money will go to the funding of religious schools.

Charter schools would be required to participate in state retirement programs for teachers and staff as well as state employee health benefit programs. The initiative also stated that public schools would “generally be subject to the same collective bargaining requirements as other public schools,” but that these bargaining units would be limited to the teachers within a charter school, not teachers from multiple schools or a district as is the case with current teachers unions.


 

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