October 20, 1996 in Nation/World

New Class Of Schools On Ballot Charter Schools Get Rave Reviews In Other States, But Critics Fear I-177 Will Drain Off Money, Talent

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Jim Spady’s public school would be small, maybe 30 students.

The Seattle businessman would hire at least two teachers to keep class sizes down, and then enroll his own two children.

For Spady, it’s an ideal solution to what he calls overcrowded, crime-ridden schools where students get lost in the shuffle.

That’s the type of school Spady envisioned when he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on an education initiative voters will face Nov. 5.

Initiative 177 would allow parents, teachers and other non-profit groups to create independent public schools, free from most typical regulations.

Parents could send children to conventional or charter schools, with tax money following the student to the school of choice.

Supporters of the charter-school movement say their plan would force public schools to improve to remain competitive.

Initiative critics say charter schools would erode public education by siphoning away top students, involved parents and money from existing schools.

Experiences in other states illustrate that’s not necessarily so.

Joe Rao, charter school liaison for the Los Angeles Unified School District, chuckled at the notion charter schools will unravel the fabric of public schools.

He sums up his experience: “Is it difficult? Yes. Is it impossible? No. Do you have fights along the way? Yes. Is it destroying our district? No.”

In Spady’s mind, Washington teachers and parents with visions of superior education would rally to transform old homes and surplus buildings into their own schools, sometimes borrowing $50,000 or so to get started.

Larger organizations could build their own buildings and customize schools to their liking.

“You could have a musical school,” says Spady. “You could have a technology-driven school, a Montessori school, a back-to-the-basics school.”

Many of the state’s educators oppose the initiative, including the Washington Education Association and the Association of Washington School Principals.

Their jobs would be made tougher by trying to make ends meet with far less tax money, they say.

“If I vote with my feet and go somewhere else, that doesn’t make good education for everybody,” said Brian Barker, executive director of the principals’ organization. “This is really people interested in having exclusive rights for their own children.”

The idea is not untested. Some 300 charter schools have opened in 25 states since Minnesota created the first one in 1991.

The schools haven’t existed long enough to assess how well they work. Yet in most states with charter schools, there are waiting lists to enroll.

Educators in some states give them rave reviews.

“Public educators have been saying for years we need to engage more people,” says Bill Windler, who supervises charter schools for the Colorado Department of Education.

“That’s exactly what charter schools are doing. They’re re-engaging parents. They’re re-engaging communities.”

Scott Hamilton, associate commissioner of charter schools for the Massachusetts Department of Education, says he’s seeing a lot of “flattery by imitation.”

“In order to compete, public schools have been imitating the kinds of programs charter schools have provided,” he says.

While Barker, head of the Washington principals, worries about elitism, others with the schools don’t see it that way.

Massachusetts charter schools are debunking fears they’d become elitist sanctuaries, Hamilton says. They’re serving twice as many low-income and minority students as conventional public schools.

In Colorado, Windler says he knows of only one district that suffered serious setbacks because of charter schools. That district lost 100 of its 300 students to a school started by dissatisfied parents.

So far, only one charter school has outright failed, researchers say. The Los Angeles Unified School District revoked a charter after evidence of financial problems, including fiscal mismanagement.

The remaining charter schools aren’t placing a financial burden on conventional public schools, L.A.’s Rao says.

The Washington initiative varies from some others in that districts wouldn’t be forced to allow charter schools. Voters in each district could approve them or leave their school system alone.

Charter schools couldn’t be religious or charge tuition. But they could set their own admission policies, codes of conduct and discipline procedures.

Schools could pay teachers more or less than conventional schools do. They could bypass unions or let employees start their own.

The schools wouldn’t be allowed to discriminate based on race, religion, sex, disability or economic status.

While charter schools would be regulated much like private schools, certain reports would still be required, such as attendance, complaints, average test scores, and finances. Safety and health standards would still apply.

District school boards or the state superintendent of public instruction would license charter schools and review those licenses annually.

Critics, however, say the schools still wouldn’t be held to strict academic standards or have enough oversight.

“They are only answerable to the school board when the granting of the independent school status comes up for review,” Barker says. “Should the public be paying for someone else’s vision?”

Barker foresees schools run not only by teachers and parents valuing a solid academic education, but by people wishing to spread their own social beliefs and biases.

Mary Anne Stuckart, a teacher at Spokane’s Hutton Elementary School, worries charter schools would take too much money from conventional public schools - and from her classroom.

“If there’s less money in the school district, they might cut back on janitorial service, or decide everybody gets a ream of paper for the year.”

She also predicts the “natural leaders” would opt for charter schools, along with the parents who contribute most to public schools.

“They’re probably going to be the ones organizing the raffles at schools or the fund-raisers for computers.”

Spady disagrees. “The parents who choose charter schools are those whose kids are falling through the cracks. They’re dropping out, they’re getting into drugs, they’re smoking cigarettes at school.”

Well, not all of them.

Take Spady, whose children Jasmine and Saul, are just 10 and 7 years old. Spady is a wealthy man who runs a drive-in restaurant chain in Seattle.

He and his wife, Fawn, both Democrats, began spending nearly $10,000 a year to send their children to a private, non-religious school after becoming fed up with public schools.

“Good people, bad system,” he says.

Yet his initiative ensures poor people wouldn’t be left out, Spady says. Independent schools would have to reserve 15 percent of their openings for low-income students.

Last summer, charter schools got a boost from researcher Chester Finn Jr. at the Hudson Institute in Indiana.

The conservative think tank released a study concluding charter schools “may be the most vibrant force in American education today.”

It’s too soon to say how effective charter schools have been, according to the study, “but there are growing bodies of positive evidence.”

People running the schools have made creative use of their freedom, Finn says. One school is open year-round. Another operates from 15 storefronts and teaches mostly dropouts.

In Colorado, most schools were formed by parents, Windler says. Yet the city of Colorado Springs founded one school, and the University of Colorado runs another focusing on arts and science.

Even if the Washington initiative passes, don’t expect the battle to end.

A few Massachusetts educators remain “downright hostile,” Hamilton says.

“A school district actually went out and leased a building a charter school was going to use,” he says. And not because the district needed it.

“They wanted to prevent the charter school from being able to use it.”

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: INITIATIVE 177 The initiative would allow voters to create “renewed” school districts where non-profit organizations could run “independent” public schools, free from many of the usual rules and regulations. On Wednesday, The Spokesman-Review will feature a story about Initiative 173, which would create vouchers. Vouchers would give parents public money to send their children to private schools.

This sidebar appeared with the story: INITIATIVE 177 The initiative would allow voters to create “renewed” school districts where non-profit organizations could run “independent” public schools, free from many of the usual rules and regulations. On Wednesday, The Spokesman-Review will feature a story about Initiative 173, which would create vouchers. Vouchers would give parents public money to send their children to private schools.

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