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Your Vote 2012: Charter Public Schools

Research found 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools.

Will charter schools pop up like “Jack in the Boxes,” as they divert funds from public schools, or will they offer parents an alternative to failing local schools? For the fourth time, Washington residents will vote on a charter schools initiative.

Our state has 1,035,000 students enrolled in public schools. About 73,000 students go to private schools, and another 15,000 are homeschooled. Voters will decide, next month, if charter schools should be another option in Washington.

Initiative 1240 would allow up to 40 charter schools statewide over a five-year period, with a priority given to schools and communities that serve at-risk students.

How are they different from regular public schools? Do they work? Will they drain money from existing schools?

When two education advocates debated the charter schools ballot measure for the Seattle Channel , it wasn’t the usual playground mom talk.

“I feel like this is a little bit like the substitute referee issue. Your intentions are really good, but you’re just getting it all wrong. You’re getting it all wrong,” says Shannon Campion, a supporter of I-1240 and director of Stand for Children Washington.

“I think you’re wrong. There are many times the ballot measure says ‘may’ or ‘shall’ which is not ‘will,'” responds Melissa Westbrook, a charter schools opponent and education activist with the Save Seattle Schools forum.

Public charter schools are allowed in 41 other states. But they’ve had limited success, according to a much cited 2009 Stanford report .

That research found 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools.

About 37 percent of the schools were worse than their public school counterparts.

The majority, 46 percent, demonstrated “no significant difference.”

“There’s not a district in the entire country that can say because of the presence of charters they’ve closed the achievement gap. The results are not there,” says Westbrook.

“You will thin the pot of money going to those already struggling schools, that have had their budgets cut by the state legislature and then you bring on more underfunded schools. It simply does not make sense.”

Campion, who helped craft Initiative 1240, says our state will have “very high accountability and strict oversight” to make sure we have the best charter schools in the country. In other words, she says they’ve learned from other states’ mistakes on what works and what doesn’t. Washington will do better than most.

“Charter schools are cracking the code for poor kids and kids in urban settings and kids of color. Those are many of the kids we want to serve with initiative 1240,” says Campion. “Public charter schools have certain flexibilities for teachers and principals in their schools that allow them to extend the school day or school year if they want, to develop their own curriculum and budget and to really meet the academic needs of their students.”

“Being able to open and close schools like Jack in the Boxes is not really a good idea,” Westbrook says. “The accountability is not built in. It does not require them to shut down a low performing charter without giving them option after option to save themselves.”

She adds, many schools are already creating specialty programs within the public school system, so Initiative 1240 isn’t needed.

“Tacoma has Lincoln High, they created a small at-risk high school within there called Lincoln center. They closed the achievement gap for those at risk kids and increased parent involvement and they didn’t need charters to do it,” Westbrook says. “More and more schools are waking up to realizing we can do these things and we are going to work with our union partners and get this done.”

Voters rejected charter school proposals in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

I-1240 supporters have raised $4.6 million, with a chunk of that coming from Bill Gates and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Opponents have $276,000, according to a state public disclosure report.

By LINDA THOMAS. Each Tuesday before Election Day, I’ll feature both sides of the statewide initiatives as part of Your Vote 2012 coverage.

AP file photo

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