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Education on the ballot 

& & by Pia K. Hansen & & & &





There are three initiatives on the Washington state ballot this fall closely connected to the way public schools are run and how much funding they receive.


A yes on I-729 would allow local school boards to open charter schools, as is the case in 36 other states and the District of Columbia. Oregon signed a charter school law last year, and Idaho has had one for several years.


Jim and Fawn Spady, founders of the Education Excellence Coalition, have worked on passing the charter school initiative for several years. Last year the initiative didn't make it on the ballot, but this year supporters gathered 306,361 signatures and made it.


"Charter schools are funded out of the tax base, but it's not a voucher system, it's just an alternative to regular public schools," says Mari Clack, who's the co-chair of the campaign and also on University of Washington's Board of Regents. "Charter schools don't charge tuition, and they can't discriminate, they must take all students. The only difference is the curriculum and maybe in the teaching style."


Opponents, however, say that charter schools will suck funds out of an already strained public school budget to cater to students with high academic aspirations.


"The Washington Education Association does not have a formal position on charter schools, but I believe essentially this is just another way of allowing public dollars to be directed into private education," says Terry Fitzpatrick, president of Washington Education Association's (WEA) Eastern Washington chapter. "Supporters expect that if you just allow freedom, everything is going to get better. Personally, I don't support that view."


Charter schools would be exempt from most state-imposed school regulations, except those concerning health, safety and civil rights. That leaves the charter school able to set its own curriculum. In other states, charter schools have chosen to focus on different areas such as foreign languages or science.


"We have concerns about supervision of the curriculum," says Fitzpatrick. "There is no requirement for teachers who would teach at charter schools to be certified, and the local school board would not necessarily have direct rule over the schools."


But to Clack, the increased freedom means unlimited possibilities: "Charter schools offer competition and innovation, which is something public schools can't do. Not because they are not able, but because they operate under a lot of restrictions from the state. Not having charter schools is like saying you can only have one public university."


She adds that though charter schools are run by non-profit corporations, they are held accountable to their sponsors for financial and academic performance. The schools can be sponsored by the school district or by a public university.


"I really like that part," says Clack. "We need to explore all avenues in public education, including research and innovation, as well as many different learning styles." Clack gives the example of a performing arts charter school where, she says, students are required to follow a regular curriculum but in addition to that, they can also pursue dance, music or theater.


"That's a really tough school. They have a hard curriculum, but now the students who are artistically inclined have a place to pursue their talent," says Clack. "And that's really what charter schools are. This initiative would create the ability to start another kind of public school, something that's going to help public education in the long run."





Another education-related initiative is I-728, which aims to reduce class sizes. Sponsored by Lisa D. MacFarlane, and backed by the Washington State Teachers Association, this measure would channel more funds from the state general fund to the public schools.


"In a nutshell, this initiative takes surplus taxes and property taxes and sends that money back to the local school districts. This allows the schools to reduce class sizes or build classrooms," says Mark Wenzel, spokesperson for Yes on I-728. "We are looking at $275 per student the first year, an amount that may grow to $450 within the next five years."


At a ratio of 20.4 students per teacher, Washington has the third highest student-to-teacher ratio in the nation, behind only Utah and California. And, says Wenzel, the ratio may actually be higher because when the current ratio is calculated all school employees are counted -- not only the actual teachers -- making the ratio come out lower than it really is. Improved education has been linked to smaller class sizes in several studies.


During the past decade, Washington has done a lot to improve student performance, by implementing new tests and enforcing higher academic standards on both students and teachers. But supporters of I-728 say the funding needed to achieve these goals is lacking.


"The real problem is that today we spend $300 less per student than we did in 1993, when the state enacted education reform," says Wenzel. "At the same time, we are asking kids to perform at a much higher level since we raised the bar with the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) test, but we are not giving them what they need to reach this level." Last year, only 19 percent of the state's fourth graders passed the new tests, and Wenzel says that many studies indicate low class rates are key to improved learning.


From kindergarten through high school the initiative would aim to bring the class rate down to 18 students per teacher, but eventually released funds could also be used for providing all day kindergarten, after-school classes and summer school classes for children who either need or want more academic time. The money could also be spent for teacher training. But before a single dime is put to use, the schools would be required to develop a plan for how the new funds are going to be spent. The public would have input in this process.


Earlier this year, the legislature approved a one-time allocation of $242 million to school construction, but that's the first such allocation since '93, but spot funding like that is just not sufficient.


"What we need is a steady source of increased funding," says Wenzel, "and if I-728 passes, we'd get as much as $100 million a year." He adds that the money is already there, in the general fund, because Initiative 601, the spending cap passed in 1993, prevents the state from spending all the money it collects.


"We are looking at a reserve of about $1.3 billion, according to state economists' reports, and you can't touch this unless you get approval from the people," says Wenzel. "At the same time, the state constitution says it's the paramount focus of the state to educate the children, so that's why we are going by it this way. It's not because we want government by initiative."


All unobligated lottery revenue would also go directly to the student achievement fund and to the education construction fund, if the initiative passes, as would part of the state property tax levy. For Spokane's District 81, that would translate into an estimated $54.8 million over the next five years.





Finally, a yes on Initiative 732 would grant public school teachers, other school district employees and some employees of community and technical colleges, an annual cost-of-living salary adjustment beginning in 2001.


The annual increase would be based on the consumer price index compiled for Washington state by the United States Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.


The funding for this initiative would also come from the general fund, utilizing more of the money that is not currently being spent because of the I-601 lid.


"This would keep school employees abreast of the cost-of-living increase. Federal workers get automatic adjustments, but we have to go to the legislature and ask for increases every year," says Fitzpatrick, president of the WEA's Eastern Washington chapter. "The effect may not show right away, but in the long run it will make a difference in our ability to attract and retain good teachers."


According to the state's Public Disclosure Commission, there is no organized opposition to any of the three education-related initiatives.

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