When a judge gave Washington State’s charter school supporters the green light to begin collecting signatures for a new ballot initiative, many were optimistic, even confident, about their chances of success. Although they had just twenty-one days to collect 241,153 valid signatures to put Initiative 1240, which would allow charter schools to be established in a state that has none, on November’s ballot, recent polls had shown that 60 percent of Washington voters supported allowing charter schools in the state. The initiative’s backers were also prepared and able to pay people to gather signatures, due to significant financial support from some extremely wealthy individuals.
Washington state lawmakers had proposed a bill to allow charters in the state during the legislative session. But it failed, so supporters opted for a different route: Washington’s ballot initiative process, where if a sufficient number of valid signatures in support of a proposed law are gathered, citizens vote directly on whether it will pass.
By the time the July 6 deadline rolled around, Yes on 1240, the coalition backing the initiative, had raised more than $2.25 million in cash contributions, much of which came from Bill Gates, Jackie and Mike Bezos (parents of Amazon founder Jeff), and a few other individuals. It spent nearly as much—at least $2.19 million—on “Petition Services” from PCI Consultants, Inc., according to public records. Using both paid and volunteer signature gatherers, Yes on 1240 collected enough to earn the initiative a place on November’s ballot and to reignite a heated controversy that reflects an ongoing national debate not just over the role of charters in education reform but also about the spending of public resources in the United States.
The first public charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992. Today more than 2 million K-12 students attend 5,611 charters throughout the United States, and those numbers are steadily growing. Publicly funded but privately operated, charters are granted more autonomy than traditional public schools, particularly in decisions over curriculum and the hiring and firing of teachers. In return they are held to higher standards of accountability and performance, though critics say that in reality, data on charter school performance is often inadequate and when charter schools are found to perform poorly, closing them is a challenging process with many legal and logistical obstacles. Any student may attend a charter, although if demand exceeds availability, a lottery determines which students enroll. Despite the private entities that oversee and manage them, charters are labeled as public because they receive government funding.
This November, voters in Georgia, where charters are already permitted, will decide on a constitutional amendment that would redefine who can approve and fund charters in the state. The amendment would allow the Georgia Charter School Commission to authorize charters. In so doing, the commission would be able to override the decisions of local school districts that rejected charter applications. Approved charters could cost roughly $430 million in state funds over the next five years. That matter is particularly contentious because the budget for Georgia’s public schools has been cut by $4 billion in the last four years.
Should either of the proposals in Washington or Georgia pass, “that’ll be the first time that charter schools have won at the ballot box,” says Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “It’ll be a significant marking in the evolution of the movement.”