January 23, 1996 in City

School Initiatives Get Airing Charter Schools, Vouchers Touted, Denounced At Hearing

Associated Press

Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to vote on a pair of citizen initiatives to shake up the public schools, but proponents and foes of charter schools and vouchers got a chance to air the issues Monday night.

Initiative sponsors touted their plans as a way to breathe new life into Washington schools, a system they described as a hidebound monopoly that is captive to the teachers’ union and hostile to efforts by parents and communities to bring about change.

Opponents, however, called the measures risky and unwise. The initiatives could severely undermine public schools and have no direct accountability to elected school boards, they said.

The issues, receiving their first and apparently only public hearing, drew an overflow crowd of several hundred citizens and lobbyists to the Legislature’s largest hearing room.

Initiative 173 would authorize vouchers that parents could use to send their children to private schools. Initiative 177 would allow local voters to create publicly funded independent schools that would be exempt from many state regulations and new school reforms.

Legislative leaders say both measures probably will be forwarded to the statewide ballot in November, rather than have an up-or-down vote in the House and Senate. Both houses say a less-sweeping version of charter schools probably will be placed on the ballot as an alternative for voters.

Rep. Steve Fuhrman, R-Kettle Falls, said there has been no groundswell for action on the initiatives. But he supports both measures and would like to see them come to a vote in the Legislature.

“I do not see them as a threat to schools in Eastern Washington,” Fuhrman said.

He said large districts like Seattle and Spokane are too big to accommodate parental input, and need to broken into smaller units.

Sponsors stopped short of calling the public education system broken, but some backers did.

“We need to dump the socialistic state monopoly in education, just as we dumped government-owned housing, and establish the public-private partnerships needed to create a competitive market in education,” said Ron Taber, the Olympia businessman and state school superintendent candidate who wrote the voucher initiative.

As drafted, the measure would give parents about $2,000 per school-aged child. Taber said lawmakers can boost that level to $3,400 or more.

Fawn Spady, the Seattle woman who co-sponsored the charter-school initiative with her lawyer-businessman husband Jim, said the goal is to “transfer power from the monopoly teachers’ union and bureaucrats to parents and individual teachers, where it belongs.”

The initiative would give local communities a chance to opt for a different approach, or keep the old system if that seems to be working, she said.

“If you vote to enact I-177 now, you are not forcing anybody to do anything,” she said.

“All we ask you to do is to trust the voters to decide what is best for their school district and to trust the parents and teachers to decide what is best for the children at their schools.”

© Copyright 1996 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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