News

School Board only one in start supporting charter schools pitch

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

After a contentious debate, the Federal Way School Board approved a resolution supporting a statewide vote to open charter schools in Washington.

The seven-paragraph resolution was approved on a 3-0 vote by board members Evelyn Castellar, Charles Hoff and Ed Barney. Bob Millen and Earl VanDorien Jr. abstained.

The board’s support of charter schools is not new. In 2003, the board approved a resolution supporting state legislation for charter schools. The legislation was approved and signed by Governor Gary Locke, but was not enacted because the matter was brought to the ballot for voters to decide.

But Federal Way’s is the only school board in the state to publicly support charter schools and the referendum, said Lily Eng, a spokeswoman for the Approve Referendum 55 campaign.

Both the 2003 resolution and the one approved Sept. 28 by the Federal Way board contained similar wording. Changes included making reference to Referendum 55 instead of the legislation.

Supporters of charter schools argue the institutions are public programs funded by state dollars in conjunction with federal and private money. Charter schools would have oversight from the district and could be shut down if they were failing, but would not have to adhere to some of the state’s education laws. Some charter schools in other states have not met expectations, supporters conceded, but they give parents, students and teachers choices.

Opponents say the charter school referendum would hurt public schools because state dollars are directly tied to enrollment. If class sizes shrink by one or two students it means teachers, staff and schools still have to educate the same classes but with fewer dollars to accomplish the task. They also argue that districts will have little accountability from charter schools.

Like many citizens in the state, the Federal Way board members have differing views about charter schools.

“I support charter schools as an individual,” VanDorien said. “Unfortunately, I’m a publicly-elected official. I have to put aside my personal agenda.”

He said he’s against the referendum because charter schools would take state dollars from existing public schools.

The resolution on charter schools and resulting discussion only created more controversy for the board –– fractured recently by debates among its members over officer positions –– and it won’t sway the results of the statewide vote, so it’s pointless and “grandstanding” to make it an issue, Millen said.

Millen also said the fighting amongst board members was “embarrassing” and creating more controversy. The board had a tense meeting on Sept. 14 when it addressed the “fair rotation” policy on officers proposed by Castellar. Citizens have also criticized the board and some members.

Castellar said she’s been “mistreated” from the moment she started serving on the board. Her support of the resolution is “not an attempt at discourse, Bob Millen. I’m very sorry this upsets you. I actually believe in this, Bob. I believe in fairness. Go figure.”

Millen said to the audience, “I’m sorry we had this controversy. It just seems to follow us wherever we go.”

“We have kids that have already fallen through the cracks,” Barney said, explaining his support of R-55.

He has five children and can’t afford private schools, but a charter program would allow him to have another option if he thought it was worth it, Barney said.

Shannon Rasmussen, president of the Federal Way Education Association, urged the board to oppose its resolution and the referendum, noting Federal Way already has quality “choice” programs like Federal Way Public Academy. FWEA is the district’s teachers’ union and part of the Washington Education Association (WEA), the largest state educators union. WEA is opposed to R-55 and has supported the campaign against the issue.

Speaking for the resolution and the referendum, Marsha Richards of Evergreen Freedom Foundation (EFF) said charter schools would give parents and teachers choices. It allows 45 charter schools –– a small percentage of the total schools in the state.

Holding up a copy of the state law governing education, Richards claimed the 1,300 pages were too restrictive. Students have unique needs, she said, and they should have the chance to learn in schools that meet those needs.

EFF, along with supporting the referendum, is a vocal critic of WEA and often tangles publicly and in court with the union.

Castellar noted two previous ballot measures regarding charter schools were supported by a majority of voters in the 30th Legislative District (which includes Federal Way), though they failed statewide. In 1995, more than 21,000 voters approved an initiative for charter schools and more than 13,000 voted against it. In 2000, the difference was less for Initiative 729: More than 19,000 voted in favor and more than 17,000 voted to nix it. Countywide in 2000, the results were equally slim. According to King County election archives, 49 percent –– more than 364,000 voters –– wanted charter schools, and 51 percent –– more than 379,000 voters –– were against the initiative.

The county’s on-line archives go back to 1998.

A supporter of charter schools, Len Englund, said the number being allowed was too small to have the detrimental affect on existing schools that opponents assert.

“It’s hardly a threat to the FWEA-dominated monopoly,” Englund said.

Why not give parents a choice, Steve Skipper asked. Some charter schools do fail while others succeed, he said, and parents would recognize the difference and move their children accordingly.

“I resent that politicians don’t think parents have any brains,” Skipper said.

Tom Murphy, superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools, remains opposed to charter schools. He’s not opposed to different ways of reaching students who are not being served now, but he wants a level playing field for all educational institutions, he said.

Proponents say charter schools will give educators and students greater freedom because they won’t have to abide by all of the state’s education laws, Murphy said. But it’s only for a handful of schools, and therefore a handful of students.

Losing the same regulations for all schools would be something he could support, Murphy said.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565, mhalliday@fedwaymirror.com

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