Nation/World

School Reforms Are A Hard Sale Voucher, Charter School Advocates Play To Tough Crowd At Spokane Community College

If Ron Taber and Jim Spady had their way, parents would wake up to a brandnew education system with lots of fresh choices.

They could create and customize their own independent public schools. Or they could use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools.

But the Nov. 5 ballot initiatives offering those choices - charter schools and school vouchers - also would erode public education in Washington, opponents said.

Taber, who sponsored the voucher initiative, and Spady, who wrote the charter proposal, defended their ideas in emotional debates Tuesday night at Spokane Community College.

“We have choices in everything else we do in life,” said Taber, who also is running for state superintendent of public instruction. “Why don’t we have choices in education?”

His voucher system would allow parents to use an annual $3,400 check for their child’s tuition at private, non-religious schools.

The program would be phased in over a decade, starting next year with students from kindergarten through second grade, adding a grade each year.

Sarah Beyersdorf, Taber’s debate opponent and a parent actively involved at Moran Prairie Elementary School, said the initiative fails to hold schools accountable to taxpayers.

“This sounds to be a lot like our early Colonial taxation without representation,” she said. “It means their schools, their rules, our money.”

But Taber portrayed vouchers as healthy competition that would give public schools an incentive to make much-needed improvements.

Beyersdorf said vouchers would lure people - and their money - from public schools while letting private schools exclude children with special needs, such as disabled students.

“Parents only have a choice of which school they apply to,” she said. “It doesn’t mean they’ll be admitted.”

Taber and Spady, both from the West Side, faced a tough audience.

Many of the 120 or so listeners were schoolteachers and administrators who murmured dissent as the men spoke, then awarded their opponents booming applause.

Taber, a millionaire landlord and rancher, drew the most hissing when he suggested teachers start their own private schools trading administrators for business managers who’d answer to them.

“I believe the day will come when teachers will become true professionals again and not just members of a labor union,” he said.

Terry Bergeson, Taber’s rival in the superintendent race, opposes both the charter and voucher initiatives as dangerous for public schools.

Spady, a Seattle attorney, tried to sell the crowd on his version of charter schools, designed to let parents bypass the bureaucracy and set up non-profit, alternative public schools.

Voters would have the option to leave school districts alone or change them to include charter schools. State dollars would follow the student to the school the parents choose.

“Make no doubt about it, these are public schools,” said Spady. “It’s a new kind of public school.”

The schools would be required to file consumer information reports and hold parent-teacher conferences.

Marcia Costello, who debated Spady, argued that charter schools would lack standards to make sure students got good educations.

“Taxpayers have a right to accountability if they’re going to foot the bill,” said Costello, Chewelah School District superintendent.

“If you want parent-community involvement in schools, then get behind school reform in Washington.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo



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