School-Choice Debate Lands On State Ballot -- Initiative 177 For Independent Schools; Initiative 173 For School Vouchers

Two weeks from Tuesday, Washington voters will declare themselves in the fierce national debate on the future of public education - deciding the fate of two citizen initiatives that raise the prospect of dramatically increased parental choice.

Initiative 177 would allow creation of independent publicly funded schools, similar to the charter schools springing up in other states. Initiative 173 would direct the state to issue school vouchers - allowing parents to use public-education money to send children to private schools and certain special public schools.

Supporters think increased choice could improve public schools by providing much-needed competition; opponents see "choice" as a threat to the foundations of the country's public-education system and the role it plays in bringing Americans together.

Both initiatives respond to "a real disenchantment with big-city schools," following years of reports about low achievement and high dropout rates, said Paul Hill, a research professor of education at the University of Washington's Institute for Public Policy and Management.

Parents' frustration with schools that "have become too much like government, blank and unresponsive," and the currently popular belief that free-market rather than government action can better solve social problems are also among the driving factors, he says.

The initiatives raise fundamental issues about the nature - and future - of public education.

Ron Taber, who wrote Initiative 173 and nearly single-handedly bankrolled the signature-gathering last year, makes it no secret that he thinks using public funds to pay private-school tuition is just a first step.

Indeed, if voters approve I-173, Taber, who is also a candidate for superintendent of public instruction, has said he would encourage religious groups to mount a legal battle to extend the use of vouchers to sectarian schools. His stance has made I-173 a lightning rod in the debate over the separation of church and state.

Jim and Fawn Spady, meanwhile, co-authors of Initiative 177, say their proposal will break the monopoly now held by "government-operated," unionized schools.

Though receiving government funds, the independent schools they propose would be subject only to the regulations applied to private schools, effectively discarding a volume of procedures thicker than a telephone book. (Health and safety regulations, and prohibitions against discrimination would remain.)

Voucher plans elsewhere

Though conservative school-choice proponents have pushed the voucher idea nationally for a decade, they've been successful only in two cities, Milwaukee and Cleveland, in each case because the measures were supported by coalitions of conservative state legislators and inner-city minority-group leaders.

Though small - only a few thousand vouchers have been available in either city - they're important successes, say voucher supporters, because both programs serve low-income families, thereby disproving critics' predictions that vouchers would serve only the well-off.

Vouchers have been defeated at the polls in several states, notably California in 1993.

Charter-school plans elsewhere

The charter-school idea has been more successful. In only five years, charter legislation has been approved in 26 states and the District of Columbia. Nationwide, there are more than 400 charter schools serving more than 80,000 students.

And the charter-school movement has had an indirect impact on public-school districts. Many now support innovations such as alternative schools within their systems or have set up charter schools themselves, according to Joe Nathan, an education researcher at the University of Minnesota.

"The bigger picture, the longer-range issue is that choice is inevitable," says Tom Vander Ark, a former high-tech industry consultant who's in his third year as superintendent of the Federal Way School District. One reason is "the consumer mentality of our society."

When it comes to something as important as their children, people want choices, says Vander Ark, who is positioning his district to be a leader by offering new types of schools. "We want to be the centerpiece of a system of choice in a competitive marketplace.".

What opponents say

But opponents are more concerned about the possible direct impact of both initiatives on the public-school system.

"I believe public education really has a calling to be the cornerstone of democracy in our communities and public funds were not meant to be used in private institutions," said MAK Mitchell, superintendent of Shoreline Public Schools. Mitchell opposes I-173. "What we see happening here is a catering to individuals, as opposed to honoring the civic purpose of schooling."

"We should be putting our energy, our time and our tax dollars into making public schools better," said Teresa Moore, assistant executive director of the Washington Education Association. The 65,000-member statewide teachers union has spent about $500,000 to oppose the initiatives so far, and expects to spend more, said Moore.

Many of I-177's opponents worry that independent public schools would end up with the most active parents and brightest students, leaving low-income and other disadvantaged students behind in increasingly impoverished public schools.

So far, that bleak vision has not matched the reality of charter schools across the country. A recent study by the conservative Hudson Institute - an acknowledged supporter of charter schools - claims that 63 percent of charter students are minorities and 55 percent are poor. Other studies have shown similar results, according to Nathan.

Locally, there are many opponents of I-177 who say they favor the idea of charter schools. "I am not opposed to the idea of charter schools as they are defined by the Department of Education," said Jon Bridge, who represents the heavily business-backed Alliance for Education on the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce board of directors. The federal Department of Education calls for a formal charter making the schools accountable to government.

"The concept of a group of people setting up a school with a particular focus sounds like a good idea," said Gary Gainer, a Spokane attorney who's president of the state Board of Education, the commission that oversees school regulations.

And two charter-school proposals got a serious look by state legislators this year, though both bills died - all of which suggests that the idea of school choice may be around for a while, no matter what voters say Nov. 5.