Teachers Unions Defeat Washington Charter Proposal

Published January 1, 1997

A proposal to create a charter school program in Washington State was defeated by a three-to-two margin on November 5, the victim of what its sponsors say was a campaign of lies and deception.

Initiative I-177

In their description of I-177 for the voters, Educational Excellence Coalition co-chairs Fawn and Jim Spady explained that charter schools are independent public schools that bring more accountability, more choice, more competition, and better public schools without higher taxes. “Charters involve parents by offering a choice of schools with safe environments, clear expectations, outstanding teachers, and high academic standards,” they wrote. “Parents choose what works best for their children.”

The Spadys pointed to a newspaper account of Massachusetts’ charter schools, which found that “It’s a high-quality education, with high expectations and high academic standards.” These schools “are serving a higher percentage of low-income, bilingual and minority children than traditional public schools.” The Spadys emphasized that school health and safety requirements would not change under I-177.

In addition, an analysis of the I-177 proposal by the Hudson Institute’s Bruno V. Manno, coauthor of a book on charter schools, concluded that “the schools that I-177 would create would be public schools’ of the charter variety.” Manno continued, “They don’t charge tuition. They can’t turn people away. They’re open to the public as well as financed and chartered by the public. Contrary to the often-voiced and relentless attack by some referendum opponents, they’re not private schools . . .”

Scare Tactics

Opponents of charter schools resorted to lies and apparently illegal tactics to defeat the initiative.

For example, a “volunteer for the teachers” called Seattle resident Mike Taylor to urge him to oppose I-177. He told Taylor that charter schools would not require background checks on teachers and that teachers would not be required to be certified. The charter school initiative would “take money away from the public schools and hurt public education,” claimed the volunteer for the teachers.

“The opposition’s strategy is the BIG LOUD LIE,” responded I-177 co-chair Jim Spady. “The lying started with the NO’ leaflets, moved onto the airwaves, and now it’s coming through the phone lines.” In fact, I-177 required certified teachers or, “in exceptional cases,” teachers of “unusual competence.” Also, all teachers would have to be fingerprinted and pass a criminal history background check. Finally, I-177 would not have removed any funds from public education, because I-177 independent charter schools would have been public schools.

In a unique “local option” feature, I-177 allowed voters in each local community to choose to authorize charter schools if–and only if–voters wanted to. “No community must authorize charter schools and nobody must attend one” wrote the Spadys in the Voters Pamphlet. Each community would have been permitted to make its own decision.

Unfortunately, the Voters Pamphlet circulated before the election also contained the statement of I-177 opponents against the initiative, including the lie about no background checks putting students at risk from “criminals and sexual predators.” Calling the initiative “a dangerous threat to public schools,” opponents asserted that I-177 “lowers academic standards, weakens student safety protections and eliminates accountability to taxpayers.” Claiming that “I-177’s patchwork of privately run schools will only lead to more bureaucracy, more overhead, and higher taxes,” opponents labeled it a “radical, untested initiative.”

Illegal Union Tactics

When Pete Goforth returned home from a business trip, he found two school newsletters that his daughter had brought home from her Kent, Washington, elementary school.

Stapled to the backs of each newsletter were PTA letters urging parents to vote against I-177–a position the PTA had taken without polling its members or allowing the I-177 campaign to meet with its board. The letters had been printed and distributed by the school district. Other Washington PTAs sent similar anti-I-177 literature home with students.

The PTA had engaged in illegal activities to defeat the charter school initiative. The Revised Code of Washingtonexpressly prohibits the direct or indirect use of public facilities or property to promote or oppose any candidate or ballot initiative.

I-177 co-chair Fawn Spady called the PTA’s use of public school facilities to oppose the initiative “outrageous, but consistent with their behavior throughout the campaign. The PTA continues to mislead parents, families, and taxpayers about I-177–and is clearly not acting in the best interest of the children.”

“The other side will do anything,” commented Jim Spady. “This is about power, and they want to keep it.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].