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School Reforms Rejected

School initiatives

Washington voters Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected dramatic public school reform - initiatives that would have created charter schools and the nation’s first statewide voucher system.

Each initiative was opposed by about two-thirds of voters.

“This says people believe in the public schools,” said Trevor Neilson, spokesman for the state teacher’s union which pumped heavy money into the campaigns against the measures.

“I’m very excited,” said Terry Bergeson, winner of the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction. “I really think that says people want to keep their commitment to public education.

Either initiative would have sparked sweeping changes in public education and were strongly opposed by education groups.

Initiative 177 would have allowed groups to organize independent schools with public money. Initiative 173 would have created the voucher system.

Opponents claimed the initiatives would skim tax money and quality students from public schools while being free of oversight.

Charter schools would have to answer to an elected school board just once every four years. Private schools accepting vouchers wouldn’t have to answer to the public at all.

“I think (voters) want people … accountable for their children’s education,” said Spokane School District 81 Superintendent Gary Livingston.

Jim Spady, the Seattle restaurateur who bankrolled the charter-school campaign, said winning in the face of opposition from the state union and top educators was “a long shot at best.”

“I just have to believe, sooner or later, the interests of children will be put first,” ahead of the interests of “union bosses and bureaucrats,” Spady said.

The charter initiative would have allowed any organization to open a school free from most regulations.

More than 300 charter schools in 25 states have opened since Minnesota created the first in 1991. Research on whether students perform better academically in charter schools has been inconclusive.

As long as it didn’t charge tuition, have religious affiliation or discriminate, charter schools could customize curriculum. Proponents envisioned fine arts or back-to-basics schools.

Spady said he will now try to push charters with an initiative to the Legislature. “Charter schools are the future of education,” he said. “It’s only a matter of when.”

Livingston noted support for charter schools is growing, and educators must respond to the interest.

“We’re interested in charter programs within the system,” said Livingston.

The voucher initiative would have been a national pioneer. Two Midwestern cities have vouchers, but nowhere is there a statewide system.

Parents would have received a voucher for about 55 percent of what the state spends per student for a private, secular education. For 1997, that’s about $3,400.

Chief proponent Ron Taber, a Republican who lost his race for superintendent of public instruction, sold the idea as an egalitarian opportunity for every parent to afford a private education for their child.

Opponents said the initiative would cripple public schools financially. A voucher system in Milwaukee is forcing a $10 million budget cut after a flood of students left for private schools.

Spokane County voters defeated the initiatives by roughly a 2-1 margin, echoing the statewide election results.

“That’s a vote of confidence for public education,” Livingston said.

, DataTimes