State Senate OKs charter schools bill

By Eric Stevick
Everett Herald Writer


A state lawmaker from Everett cast a key vote in the Senate Thursday to allow charter schools in Washington for the first time.

In a 26-23 vote, Sen. Aaron Reardon was one of three Democrats to favor a bill that would allow charter schools --small, independent schools supported by public money. The bill would allow 70 charter schools over the next six years, beginning with five schools in the first year before eventually reaching a maximum of 15 per year.

Charter school advocates, who have spent a decade fighting for their cause at the polls and before the Legislature, predict the House will support the measure and Gov. Gary Locke will sign it into law.

"I always thought it should be a bipartisan issue," Reardon said. "It's just one more tool in the toolbox for parents and students."

In the past, charter school bills have been supported by both parties in the House, but were bottled up in committee in the Senate.

In recent years, Democrat Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell -- a vocal opponent of charter schools -- used her chairmanship of the Senate Education Committee to kill similar bills. When Senate Republicans took a one-vote majority during the last election, they gained control of the committee chairmanship, enabling them to guide the bill through.

For Reardon, the fact that each school district has the option of supporting or rejecting charter school proposals was critical.

"The ball is completely in the local school board's court," he said.

All of which could make for some lively local school board elections in the future, say followers of the charter school movement.

Geoff Short, president of the Mukilteo School Board, said his board has not taken a position on charter schools, but he would need compelling evidence to support starting one.

"For our district, I don't see any real value," he said. "We have a very long-term vision and commitment for achievement for all kids."

Charter school backers say the idea is to foster innovative and creative teaching, give students and parents an alternative, and to stimulate struggling schools.

Lynn Nixon, governmental affairs director for Aligent Technologies, a spinoff of Hewlett-Packard Co., has been following the charter school arguments in Washington state for years. Nixon said she sees many innovative approaches in public schools, and the charter schools could bring even more ideas to the classroom.

"A charter school has the potential to get some innovative people together to say, 'How do we close an achievement gap?'" she said.

McAuliffe and other charter opponents argue that charter schools would siphon off tax dollars and good students from public schools while producing limited results.

"There's never been a good time for charter schools in the state of Washington," McAuliffe said.

Opponents cited two initiatives in 1996 and 2000 that would have allowed charter schools; voters turned both down. The 2000 initiative faced little opposition and had a $3.4 million campaign backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, but failed anyway. In the same election, voters gave resounding support to public school spending and approved Initiative 728 and Initiative 732, which mandated more state spending for smaller class sizes and better teacher pay in public schools.

Snohomish was one of five counties in the state to favor the 2000 charter school initiative, with a 50.5 percent yes vote.

Sen. Dave Schmidt, R-Mill Creek, serves on the Senate Education Committee and voted in favor of the bill.

"I just think it's an excellent alternative," he said.

Jim Spady, a Seattle businessman whose Education Excellence Coalition has been the loudest voice for charter schools in Washington, was thrilled after Thursday's vote.

"We lost very close in 2000," he said. "This is a more modest bill than the one presented in 2000."

Assuming it becomes law, Spady isn't predicting a quick proliferation of charter schools, because they will take in-depth planning and community support.

"It's a tremendous amount of effort to create a charter school," he said. "It will become an important issue in local school elections."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446 or


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