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Chasing Signatures for Charter Schools in Washington State

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A coalition of advocacy groups is making a push to collect enough signatures to place an item on the ballot this fall to allow for the creation of charter schools in Washington state.

Three of the organizations immersed in the effort are Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children, both of which are active in many states and districts around the country; and the League of Education Voters, which seeks to improve schools in Washington state.

Their chances rest on doing a lot of work in a short amount of time.

To place an item on the statewide ballot in November, the groups need to collect 241,000 signatures from registered state voters by July 6, according to the Washington Secretary of State's office. Unlike ballot items in some states, the would-be Washington measure is not just a couple lines of text; it's girded by a detailed, 40-plus-page proposal setting the parameters for the establishment of charter schools in the state over time. The measure would create a relatively modest number of charter schools, 40, over a five-year period. The language that eventually appears on the ballot will be a brief description of the measure, said David Ammons, a spokesman for the Secretary of State's office.

Washington is just one of just nine states that do not have laws allowing for charter schools, according to the Center for Education Reform, a Washington group that supports those independent, public schools, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The others are Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia.

The public has not been kind to pro-charter ballot items in Washington state in the past. Ballot items to establish charters were shot down by state voters in 1996 and 2000, and again in 2004, when the public overturned a charter school measure that had been approved by legislators.

But backers of the plan believe public sentiment has shifted to their side, said Chris Korsmo, the chief executive officer of the League of Education Voters. Supporters of the measure plan to enlist volunteer and paid signature-gatherers, and they expects other advocacy groups and education activits to lend their support in the weeks and months to come, she said.

"Once the voters have an opportunity to see what these schools can provide, they'll support it," Korsmo predicted.

Judging from its reaction, the Washington Education Association, a teachers' union, has a dim view of the ballot-item-for-charters idea.

"The charter school cha-cha returns," reads a message on the organization's web site.

"What part of 'no charter schools' do the people pushing to destroy public education refuse to understand?" it asks. "An initiative was filed today to, guess what, bring charter schools to our fine state. Three times voting them down not enough? Washingtonians, please pay attention. If you don't sign this, it won't get on the ballot."

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