Washington Charter School Authorization, Referendum 55 (2004)

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The Washington Charter School Authorization, also known as Referendum 55, was on the November 2, 2004 ballot in Washington as a veto referendum, where a vote of the people overturned a recently enacted law passed by the Washington State Legislature. R-55, if the voters had approved it, would have upheld a law authorizing public charter schools. Since the law was rejected, public charter schools are not allowed in the state. The schools that would have been allowed would have had conditions on their operation including that they would have to be operated by qualified nonprofit corporations, under contracts with local education boards, and they would have been allocated certain public funds.

The law challenged by R-55 was called Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill 2295 (ESSHB 2295). It was passed in the 2004 session of the state legislature on its final passage.[1]

R-55 had the distinction that Rosa Parks became involved, endorsing a "yes" vote.

Election results

Washington Referendum 55 (2004)
Defeatedd No1,572,20358.3%
Yes 1,122,964 41.7%

Election results via the Washington Secretary of State.[2]

Text of the measure

The language appeared on the ballot as:[3]

The legislature passed Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill 2295 (ESSHB 2295) concerning charter public schools.

This bill would authorize charter public schools and would set conditions on operations. Charter schools would be operated by qualified nonprofit corporations, under contracts with local education boards, and allocated certain public funds.

Should this bill be approved or rejected?[4]

Fiscal impact statement

The 2004 State of Washington Voters Pamphlet lists the fiscal impact statement, as prepared by the nonpartisan Washington Office of Financial Management, as follows:[5]

Referendum 55 would authorize creation of charter public schools by local school districts or, through an appeals process, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. State education spending would increase $14.0 million over five years, primarily the result of new students entering the public school system to attend charter schools. State funding for charter public schools would be provided in the same manner as other public schools. As students already enrolled in the public school system move to charter schools, student instructional and other costs would shift and associated state revenue would be reallocated. District-sponsored schools also would receive local revenue.

Assumptions for Analysis of Referendum 55

  • For the purposes of this analysis and contrary to the assumptions in the 2004 supplemental budget, it is assumed that the delayed implementation of the charter school legislation would preclude the creation of any charter schools in the 2004-05 school year.
  • The cumulative number of charter schools assumed is shown below with the associated student enrollments, estimated new state expenditures, and state and local revenues that would be redistributed as current public school students transfer to charter public schools:
  • Based on national averages, enrollment in each new charter public school would be 140 students with 13.7 percent assumed to be crossover enrollment – new students who leave private or home schooling to enter public schools. Average enrollment in each converted charter public school would be 370 with 10 percent crossover enrollment.
  • Per student funding from the state General Fund is based on the 2004-05 school year amount ($5,287 per student), which is adjusted for inflation (Seattle CPI) in future years. Estimates for the Student Achievement Fund allocation are based on current law.
  • Local levy estimates are based on 2003 statewide average local levy collections per student of $1,226. The actual amount will vary based on the specific districts that enter agreements to run charter public schools, and local levy amounts in those districts.
  • No assumptions were made as to the level of federal or private funding that might be available for public charter schools from either existing federal programs (like special education or free and reduced price lunch support) or competitive grants. Similarly, estimates were not made regarding state competitive grant awards or school construction funds.
  • State agency costs are based on current budget amounts for Fiscal Year 2005 and reflect agency estimates of workload increases expected in subsequent years.[4]


Civil rights heroine Rosa Parks, who endorsed a "yes" vote on R-55


Supporters of a "yes" vote on R-55, to uphold public charter schools, as listed in the official Voter's Guide included:

  • Dave Quall, Democrat, State Representative, teacher, Chair, House Education Committee
  • Stephen Johnson, Republican, State Senator, Chair, Senate Education Committee
  • David Shaw, past Pasco Superintendent and State Accountability Commission Chair
  • Dr. Sam Smith, former President, Washington State University
  • Raul Yzaguirre, President, National Council of La Raza
  • Rosa Parks, civil rights leader

Arguments in favor

These arguments in support appeared in the official State of Washington Voter Guide:[6]


Our public schools work well for most children, but not all. 30% of students drop out of high school. More than 50% of African-American, Latino and Native-American children drop out.

Charter public schools are tuition-free public schools that are managed independently from the usual bureaucracy. They help children who are falling through the cracks of our regular public school system.


In low-income areas, too many children are trapped in low-performing schools because their families cannot afford to live in neighborhoods with better schools. The system doesn’t work for them. They are denied equal opportunity to learn.

While spending more money may help many kids, we need more than just money to solve the dropout and “achievement gap” problems. The system needs to change. Charter schools reduce bureaucracy and empower teachers and principals to innovate.


Qualified nonprofits run charter public schools under detailed, 5-year performance contracts. Like other public schools, charters employ state-certified teachers and cannot discriminate in admissions. Unlike other public schools, charters must pass independent performance audits.

Charters get results because they receive state funding only if families choose them. They receive local funding only if local school boards and voters approve.


Charter public schools don’t raise taxes. Charters actually generate more money for public education by tapping millions in federal and charitable dollars available only to charters.

Of course, the education bureaucracy doesn’t want to compete with charter public schools. But when public schools innovate, children win.

Please vote to help children. Approve charter public schools. Approve R-55.

Rebuttal of Statement Against

“Progress”? Washington’s 30% dropout rate is higher than most and not getting better. Children trapped in failing schools need alternatives, now. Children slipping through the cracks need alternatives, now. R-55 doesn’t take money from public schools, it takes children out of failing schools. Failing schools waste taxpayers’ money. Dropouts waste taxpayers’ money. Approve R-55 and improve our public schools through more parental involvement, choices, innovation, accountability, independent performance audits, and less bureaucracy, without raising taxes.[4]

Campaign finance

The name of the committee that supported I-297 was "Yes on 297. Protect Washington." They raised $737,855 for their campaign to urge voters to vote "yes."[7] Supporters of R-55 spent $3,945,029 making their case to Washington voters.[8]

The top five donors to "Approve Referendum 55" were:

  • John Walton: $1,020,000
  • Bill Gates: $1,000,000
  • Donald G. Fisher: $965,388
  • Eli Broad: $200,000
  • Reed Hastings: $190,255



State senator Tracey Eide, who encourage a "no" vote

Opponents of R-55 as listed in the official Voter's Guide were:

  • Catherine Ahl, Education Chair, League of Women Voters of Washington
  • Tracey Eide, State Senator, Democrat, 30th District
  • Mary E. Bass, President, Seattle School Board
  • Idalia Apodaca, high school ESL teacher
  • Christie Perkins, parent, Washington State Special Education Coalition
  • Jim Kowalkowski, Superintendent, Pomeroy Schools; Director, Rural Education Center.

Arguments against

These arguments in opposition appeared in the official State of Washington Voter Guide:[9]


By voting to Reject Referendum 55, you protect the progress we are making in our public schools. You will tell the Legislature, once and for all, you do not want to spend public money on expensive, risky propositions like charter schools that, in other states, have not performed as promised. Vote to Reject Referendum 55 and tell the legislature that you want quality public schools for every student.

Washingtonians understand education. We know that to improve our schools we must reduce class sizes and put a well-qualified educator in every classroom. Instead of implementing the voter-approved initiatives to reduce class sizes and provide annual cost-of-living increases for teachers and school employees, the legislature passed a bill authorizing charter schools in Washington.


Charter schools will drain more than $100 million from public schools in the coming years and diminish our ability to continue improving all schools. Charter schools take money away from all students to benefit just a few.


Charter schools are run by private boards, not publicly-elected local school boards. This means that charter schools spend public money but are excused from being accountable to taxpayers.


Charter school initiatives have been rejected by Washington voters twice in the past eight years. Join the thousands of teachers, school employees, parents, the Washington Education Association, the American Association of University Women, the Washington State Labor Council, the Washington Association of Churches, and many others by rejecting charter schools—again. Reject Referendum 55.

Rebuttal of Argument For

All children in Washington deserve a quality education, but charter schools don’t deliver. That’s why Washington voters have rejected charter schools twice.

The New York Times recently reported, “Federal data show children in charter schools perform worse on math and reading tests than their counterparts in regular schools.” Washington voters already approved initiatives for smaller class sizes and a quality educator in every classroom. The State must fulfill this commitment first. Reject Referendum 55.[4]

Campaign finance

"Protect Our Public Schools" spent $1,338,204 to defeat R-55.[10]

The two largest donors to the campaign were:

Similar initiatives

Before R-55 was defeated, Washington voters had previously defeated measures to allow school charters:

See also

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