Closer look at charter school Initiative 1240

PENDLETON, Ore. -- If passed.. Initiative 1240 would authorize up to 40 publicly funded charter schools to open across Washington over a five year period. The schools would be funded by the state, but run by non profit organizations. I-1240, was originally designed as a legislative bill, but didn't leave the legislative floor. So citizens, backed by Bill Gates quickly gathered enough signatures to put it on the ballot.

It is the fourth time the issue has been on the Washington ballot. The most recent unsuccessful try was in 2004, when a legislatively approved bill was placed on the ballot by opponents. The vote on Referendum 55, the text of House Bill 2295, was 41.7 percent to retain the new law and 58.3 to repeal it before it took effect. The other votes were in 1996 and 2000. The 2000 vote was the only close one-failing 51.8 percent to 48.2.

Charter schools have been operating in Oregon since 1999.. Nixyaawii (nikki-ah-way) Community School was established in 2004, in Pendleton. 49 students attend the school with a focus on native American culture, including the languages of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

"I'm Umatilla, but I started learning Nez Perce and I've taken it for three years," said Senior Travis Bomgarner, who transferred from the Pendleton School District his Sophomore year.

"Pendleton was too much, this is easier, more one on one time because I felt I needed it, and coming here actually helped," Bomgarner said.

Several of the students say they prefer the smaller classrooms as well.

"It was hard for me, I had really bad grades but once I came out here, I did a lot better," said Sophomore Sharice Quaempts who is now earning straight A's.

Nixyaawii Principal Ronda Smith said charter schools work very well in this instance.

"It's a great thing because you get the quality education, you get the regular state standards for academic learning, but in addition to that, you get an interest of a group of kids," Smith said.

Nixyaawii is part of the Pendleton school district and receives funding from the state through them. But it is also funded by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The school has its own board, and makes hiring decisions outside the district.

"Pendleton school district has a union for their teachers. And we are a separate entity, even though we are a charter of that district, we are a separate entity and so we our very own employment of teachers," Smith said, whose school employs four certified teachers.

But it may be that lack of control that worries the LaDonna Sterling, a Richland School teacher at Jason Lee Elementary and a member of the Washington Education Association, a teacher union.

Sterling says charter schools use public school money to give a small group of kids a private school education.

"Here is such a small percentage of them that actually perform any better than public schools..Why would we want our money going somewhere that only affects a small percentage of students?" Sterling questioned.

According to the voter's pamphlet, the Office of Financial Management determined setting up 40 charter schools in Washington over a five year period would cost the state $3,090,700. Sterling said that is money that should be pumped into public schools instead.

For more information on Initiative 1240, click here.

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