Washington Charter School Authorization, Referendum 55 (2004)
in Washington State
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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: Senate: Yeas, 27; Nays, 22; Absent, 0; Excused, 0. House: Yeas, 51; Nays, 46; Absent, 0; Excused, 1. 
A "yes" vote was a vote to uphold ESSHB 2295, the public charter school law. A "no" vote was a vote to reject public charter schools.
R-55 had the distinction that Rosa Parks became involved, endorsing a "yes" vote.
|Referendum 55, Charter Schools|
Estimated fiscal impact
The estimated fiscal impact of R-55 as estimated by the Washington Office of Financial Management was:
- "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."
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, Mother of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement.
Arguments in favor
Arguments made in the official Voter's Guide by R-55's supporters included:
- 30% of Washington public school students drop out.
- More than 50% of African-American, Latino and Native-American children drop out.
- Charter schools will help solve the drop-out problem, and other problems with Washington's public school system.
- Charter schools, because they "reduce bureaucracy and empower teachers and principals to innovate", will help solve these problems.
- To be accredited as a public charter school under this measure, "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 actually generate more money for public education by tapping millions in federal and charitable dollars available only to charters."
In rebuttal to the arguments put forward by their opposition, supporters closed with this impassioned rhetoric:
- "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.
Supporters of R-55 spent $3,945,029 making their case to Washington voters.
The top 5 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
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 made in the official Voter's Guide by opponents of public charter schools were:
- If there are public charter schools, it will hurt the public school system.
- The improvement Washington voters hope to see in the public schools won't happen.
- "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 are run by private boards, not publicly-elected local school boards."
In rebuttal to the reasons put forward by supporters of R-55, opponents said:
- ":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."
"Protect Our Public Schools" spent $1,338,204 to defeat R-55.
The two largest donors to the campaign were:
Before R-55 was defeated, Washington voters had previously defeated measures to allow school choice:
- Washington Charter Schools Act, Initiative 729 (2000)
- Washington Charter Schools, Initiative 177 (1996)
Path to the ballot
- Education on the State of Washington ballot
- Washington 2004 ballot measures
- List of Washington ballot measures
- 2004 ballot measures
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