Opponents Will Seek Referendum To Overturn Education-Reform Law

OLYMPIA - Despite last-minute concessions from the Legislature, opponents of education reform say they'll take their battle to the voters next week with a referendum seeking repeal of the legislation.

O. Jerome "Jed" Brown, a former schoolteacher and candidate for state superintendent of public instruction, filed papers late Thursday with the secretary of state's office.

The measure, signed by Gov. Mike Lowry earlier last week, mandates all school districts in Washington to join a new public-school system by the year 2000. But Brown said he doesn't think most residents support it.

"The Legislature seemed to ignore the public and in an arrogant way said the opinion of the people did not matter," he said.

The Bainbridge Island resident said he expects to begin gathering signatures from registered voters late next week. If he gathers 90,834 signatures by July 24, the referendum would be placed on the November ballot.

The legislation, sponsored by House Majority Leader Kim Peery, D-Camas, will require schools to advance and graduate students based on what they learn, rather than how much time they spend in the classroom.

Schools will also be asked to teach students "analytical thinking" and to better train them in problem-solving and the use of technology.

But while the reform plan has been lauded by some educators and administrators, many parents and Christian-based groups argue that the proposal is unproven, too costly and too intrusive on the lives of families.

Brown, 44, heads an organization of Christian educators called the Phronesis Group and has been a speaker at town meetings on education reform.

Last September, he ran as non-partisan candidate for the top schools post and drew 6.2 percent of the vote.

"If we're right, we'll get the signatures and if we're wrong, we won't," he said of the referendum.

The track record on referendums shows history is on Brown's side.

Unlike ballot initiatives, which generally have a tough time just getting on the ballot, more than half of all referendums ever filed in this state have not only have qualified for the ballot but succeeded in overturning legislation.

Proponents of education reform say they'll decide later whether to organize a campaign to uphold the legislation.

"I don't think there is any huge groundswell out there of citizens thinking this is a bad law," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Judith Billings.

Because of the well-organized opposition to education reform, lawmakers toned down or altogether scrapped controversial language in the reform bill.

They also gave private schools and home-schoolers a permanent exemption to the new education standards.

Some leading opponents of reform said yesterday they're unlikely to join the referendum campaign because they actually supported some aspects of the final legislation.

But John Kiser of the Washington Citizens Foundation in North Bend says his group is ready to assist Brown's signature-gathering effort.

Kiser figures the education-reform referendum will draw many of the same people who've become interested in the two anti-tax initiatives, 601 and 602, because of the cost to the state.

The Legislature has earmarked $58 million to get the reform plan under way in the next two years, but the overall cost of education reform during the next seven years is priced at $1 billion.