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Community turns out for initiatives forum

Taber, Spady, PTA debate finer points, answer questions

debate participants

(Left to right) Ken Schram served as moderator in the debate between Barbara Webb, Jim Spady, and Dr. Ron Taber.
Photo by Jeff Switzer/Woodinville Weekly.

initiatives forum by Jeff Switzer
District parents, students, and residents turned out to hear Dr. Ron Taber, author of I-173 and candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jim Spady, author of I-177, and Barbara Webb, State PTA president, explain their views on what the two education initiatives appearing on the Nov. 5 ballot would and would not do.
   KOMO TV and radio host Ken Schram moderated the debate before a standing-room-only crowd in Ricketts auditorium last Tuesday, where the audience appeared predominantly against the initiatives, though concerned enough to fill two hours with questions.

Taber on I-173
   Taber argued that parents should be allowed to choose the schools they want for their children via the voucher system proposed in Initiative 173, whether they be "charter" schools, nonreligious independent/private schools, or state schools.
   "I believe we can improve education in Washington State by having this choice," Taber told the audience. "Public schools will get better with competition."
   According to the initiative, "voucher-redeeming schools" would include any school that met the state requirements for private schools, and vouchers would provide $3,400 to each student born on or after Sept. 1, 1989. These state-funded tax dollars, not to be less than 55 percent of state and local government spending allocated for each annual full-time student, would follow the student to whichever school the parents choose.
   Each teacher at a voucher-redeeming school must hold a college degree in the subject area taught or in education, or pass a subject area competency examination. Teachers qualifying by examination must be supervised by a state certified teacher.
   The standards by which the "voucher-redeeming school" would operate include some loosely defined terms that could be bound for court. "It is the legislative intent of this chapter that independent schools, regardless of size, be accorded maximum flexibility to educate students and be free of unnecessary, burdensome or onerous regulation," the initiative states.
   Regulations pertaining to health, safety, or land use imposed by any jurisdiction must be "essential" or "compelling," must not "unduly burden or impede independent schools or the parents or students therein," and "will not harass, injure, or suppress independent schools."
   Taber argued that the statewide standards are a bureaucracy serving as handcuffs on teachers. "Teachers cannot teach the way they were taught to teach. School choice can liberate good teachers," he said.

Spady on I-177
   Commonly referred to as the Charter School initiative, I-177, Jim and Fawn Spady's initiative, would create a "different kind of public school," according to the Attorney General's description.
   Known as the "Education Excellence Act," the initiative would put to a local vote the option to create "renewed public school districts," giving parents the option of sending their children to any school they want. Once the voters approve the shift, the soonest they could vote to opt out would be six years.
   Jim Spady, who lives with his family in Seattle, argued that his initiative would help people living in large, urban school districts, "where families can't afford to move to the suburbs" and where parents have no choice in their children's education. Parents would be more involved and utilize "empty classrooms" for independent, state-funded instruction.
   "It's a local option," said Spady. "Individual voters in individual districts, giving each district a choice. It's about improving big urban areas."
   "Renewed public school districts" would include current public schools following state guidelines for operation, and "independent public schools" abiding by the following criteria:
   They must be non-profit; create an education achievement plan for each student; employ certificated teachers according to the requirements for private schools as of Dec. 31, 1994, as well as operating requirements; are not required to implement "performance based education in accordance with HB-1209," which is optional, similar to home schooling and private schools.
   "Independent schools" must obtain a license to operate each year, issued by the "renewed school district" only if the proposed school provides scope, sequence, and benchmarks of the program or proposed program; provides test scores for license renewal; posts all affiliations; lists names and qualifications of teachers, principal, and board; and lists applicant's expectations and code of conduct.
   Allocation of public funds for schools which continue to be "government-operated" in a "renewed public school district" would be per capita and reflect special needs status. Independent public schools would receive federal, state, and local dollars based on a formula reflecting the number of school days in the previous month divided by the number in the year, paying out funds per month per student enrolled.

PTA rebuttal
   Barbara Webb, president of Washington State PTA, argued that the issues for the two initiatives are the same: public tax dollars going towards privately-run schools which lack accountability and standards. The PTA and the League of Women Voters oppose both initiatives, along with 34 other organizations, including the Washington Education Association, which represents 65,000 teachers statewide.
   "Public school was created to offer equal opportunity to all children," said Webb. "In competition, there are winners and losers. I don't want my child to be a loser in this process," she said. "When they say, 'We don't need to have statewide academic standards,' how do we assure our children who have worked for their education that it means something?"
   Talking about I-177, Webb said "these are not charter schools." Washington State PTA, representing 130,000 parents and teachers, supports charter schools, she said. "These (I-177 schools) are independent public schools held to private school standards run by private, appointed boards."
   "This is not about Seattle Public Schools," she added. "If they (the Spadys) have an issue with them, they need to take it up with Seattle Public Schools."

Two different initiatives, similar effects
   Studies of the two initiatives show similarities: Vouchers would require that space vacant for six months in a government-run public school be rented to a voucher-redeeming school for a minimum of three years; independent schools could expand immediately when they need space.
   Both initiatives prohibit discrimination in all areas save gender and academic performance. Both allow individual codes of conduct, and Taber favors a return to corporal punishment. Both cite the return to parental choice in public education to combat what are termed excesses of bureaucracy and lack of efficiency.
   Both use public dollars to finance private education, though redefined as an optional public education reform which shift private status to public status with a bureaucracy and administration of its own. Both initiatives work towards competition by teachers and administrators for the business of educating.
   There are some differences: Taber's initiative focuses on the dollars following the student and creating competition between education providers, with the philosophy that underachieving education providers will "improve" to gain back "business."
   Spady's initiative focuses on the public schools themselves, with dollars allocated according to enrollment at the end of each month, allowing parents to choose a new school up to two times per year, barring extenuating circumstances. Competition isn't for the dollar, but for the opportunity to provide the service.

The students ask
   Gaining a lesson in civics, Bothell High School students attended the forum, but went a bit further and asked some pointed questions of the panelists.
   One student asked about how sports and 150-piece marching bands would fit under Taber's voucher system, which require only a minimum enrollment of 25 students to qualify. Taber responded that the average school has 300 students.
   An almost universally-rejected argument was offered by Taber when he claimed I-173 was just a law and the voters and legislature could change it later. He said he would change the Washington Administrative Code if he were elected superintendent of public instruction, earning a remark about "trust me" politics even from Schram.
   An African-American student asked Spady why he associated violence and at-risk youth with blacks, arguing that the lie of inner-city violence has distorted the reality of the many African-American 16-year-olds who are good students with jobs and goals. Another student made a comment about unity and how many small schools would separate students from one another.
   The forum ended with Webb asking the audience to vote not just for the concept, but to read the details and go to the polls informed. Spady reiterated that while Northshore has a good school district, the voters in each district should be able to decide whether they want to opt into the independent school model. Taber added that educators know how to educate in small schools and in 2,000-student schools: one on one, but that's only possible "if we liberate free choice."
   Schram concluded that the public may have spent too many years content with dropping off their kids at schools for an education in morals and values, and that it may be time to wake up and clearly study the issues.
   The initiatives will be printed in their entirety in the voters guide, expected the week of Oct. 14, before the absentee ballots are received. The full text is also available online at the Secretary of State's home page on the Internet at http://www.wa.gov/sec/initsblt.htm, accessible at Bothell Regional Library through Netscape. Woodinville Library has the information via Gateway on its terminals; librarians are available for assistance.
   The next forum regarding this issue will be at the Shoreline Center Auditorium at 7 p.m. on Oct. 22.