Couple remains relentless in fight for charter schools

They had hotel reservations. Plane tickets. Hopes to spend a relaxing week on the beaches of Cabo San Lucas. But when Gov. Gary Locke called a special legislative session earlier this month, Jim and Fawn Spady canceled their vacation without a second thought.

For nearly nine years, the couple has lived by Olympia's calendar in an unrelenting campaign to bring charter schools to Washington state.

A hearing on charters? They've never missed one. A chance to lobby an undecided legislator on the value of this new breed of public, yet independent school? Count them in.

Be gone when this year's charter-school bill still has a chance? No way.

They feel very close this year, closer than ever before. They think there are enough votes in the House and Senate to pass this year's bill, although by narrow margins.

The Spadys, who now live on Mercer Island, started their fight when their children were in elementary school. Now their son is in high school, their daughter in college. Along the way, they joined the Republican Party they used to loathe. They became two of the state's most vocal and passionate advocates of charters — schools funded with public dollars but freed from regulations surrounding teacher hiring, curriculum and the length of the school day.

They won't give up, even if this year's bill ends up another disappointment in what's been a long string of defeats.

In 1995, they tried to get an initiative on the ballot but failed. They got enough signatures for an initiative that ended up on the November ballot in 1996, but it was defeated. Billionaire Paul Allen sponsored a second initiative in 2000, backed with $3 million, that also lost. They've watched bill after bill die in committee or on the floor of one chamber or the other.

Critics say it's time they stopped pushing an issue that lacks public support, especially after it went down again in 2000.

"When 34 counties out of 39 voted no, why would we listen to Jim and Fawn Spady?" asks state Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, a longtime charter foe.

To the Spadys, however, victory is a matter of time.

"Ideas do matter, and eventually good ideas do become law," says Jim Spady.

"Look how long it took for women to get the vote," adds Fawn Spady. "Seventy-five or 100 years. They lost along the way over and over and over."

Jim Spady is a lawyer by training but left to join his father's business — Dick's Drive-in Restaurants — about 10 years ago. Fawn Spady worked in marketing before the couple had children.

Charter schools, however, have become almost another full-time job. They often log 40-hour weeks during key legislative weeks.

When they're together, they talk fast and forcefully. They interrupt each other, jump in before the other can finish a sentence.

"Can I finish my thought, sweetie?" he asks at one point in an interview, slightly annoyed.

"Let me just say ... " she presses, without stopping.

"I guess not," he laughs.

James Kelly, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle and a fellow charter supporter, compares the Spadys' conversational style to the stereo system in the TV commercials that almost blows listeners over.

He loves their energy but adds that in a recent meeting with undecided legislators, "I had to kind of say to them, 'You're twisting arms, legs. You've got them in a chokehold.' "

At times, other charter-school supporters have gently suggested that their lobbying style doesn't always help. And in the 2000 campaign, Allen's operatives asked them to keep a low profile.

The Spadys both went to public schools — Jim in Bellevue, Fawn in New York and Arizona. They planned to send their children to public schools as well. But they ended up sending both their daughter and son to private schools.

When their son started kindergarten, Fawn said she was all ready to become an involved PTA mom. But then the principal told them the school had "tried parent participation, but it didn't work."

Even more important, their son's enthusiasm for school quickly waned.

So they grabbed the last open spot at a small, nearby private school.

That's where most parents would stop. Not the Spadys.

"We really felt we needed to do something for the kids and families left behind," says Fawn Spady.

They started doing research and ran across references to charter schools in other states. They loved the idea that parents could choose charter schools and be very involved in them, and that a charter would have to close if it didn't attract enough students.

They visited charter schools that proved they could help students who had fallen behind at traditional public schools.

"You meet these people and you can't help but be totally energized," Jim Spady says.

They were Democrats at the time, so they approached Democratic leaders in this state, seeking their support. They said one leader told them charters were a good idea, but no law could pass here because of opposition from the Washington Education Association, the strong, influential teachers union. (The union opposed the 1996 initiative but since then officially has supported or remained neutral on some charter bills.)

The Spadys forged ahead anyway and started working with legislators who already were working on charter-school legislation, including state Rep. Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon, who is now chairman of the House Education committee, and has also worked for years on behalf of charter legislation.

Charter opponents say Quall and the Spadys have it all wrong. They believe, with just as much passion, that charters would weaken existing public-school districts by siphoning money to charters that have a mixed track record elsewhere.

The Spadys "don't tell the full story on charter schools," says McAuliffe, who first debated Jim Spady during the 1996 campaign.

"The best of them are good, like our public schools," she says, "But the worst of them are ... struggling."

Governance is another issue. With charter schools, nonprofit groups would be in charge, after getting a charter, or contract, with a local school board or university. That makes them one step removed from oversight of publicly elected officials.

Originally, the Spadys wanted to make it easy for teachers or others to start charter schools. Since then, however, they've compromised.

Spady said they based the 1996 initiative on the lawyer-and-doctor model where the professionals (in education's case — teachers) run the show, and hire administrators to help them.

Politically, however, the Spadys realized that wasn't going to fly, in part because there was little oversight of charters other than the market forces of supply and demand. The bill now before the Legislature would give a charter's sponsors power to close the school under a number of circumstances, especially if the students don't achieve at levels equal to that at comparable schools.

"Not everybody has that faith (in the market), so you have to compromise," Fawn Spady says.

Over time, the Spadys have gained more political respect, especially as Jim Spady has served on the state's Academic Achievement and Accountability Commission, the committee that oversees the state's education-reform law.

"Everyone understands that charter schools are his (Spady's) fundamental passion," says Steve Mullin, vice president of the Washington Roundtable, a business group. But Mullin said there are no longer questions about Spady's motives.

"People understand that the end he's trying to accomplish is quality education for kids."

Make no mistake: The Spadys still want to shake things up. They believe that the public-school system is incapable of improving itself.

"It needs to be pushed from the outside and led by examples of success," says Jim Spady.

And he sees a future where most suburban and urban school districts manage a portfolio of independently operated public schools "that compete with each other for the privilege of serving our children."

They say they're in the "whatever-it-takes-to-help-kids" camp, not the group that would like to see the collapse of public schools.

"Our primary passion is better schools for urban kids, especially low-income, minority kids," says Jim Spady.

There were a few times, especially after the 2000 ballot initiative failed, when they thought about quitting.

"But it doesn't last long," she says.

"One of us will come around and say, 'this is too important,' " he adds.

Originally, they figured they'd work for a year or two, get a charter bill or an initiative in place, then move on.

They remember, back then, talking to Bruce Chapman of Seattle's Discovery Institute, who told them it would take at least 10 years.

They laughed then, thinking he was wrong. They laugh now, knowing he was right.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or