Initiative 1240, the charter-school initiative, held a slight statewide lead in Tuesday's initial vote count.

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The charter-school initiative held a slight statewide lead Tuesday in what turned out to be one of the closest statewide races.

Initiative 1240 was passing in some of the most populous counties, including Clark, Pierce and Snohomish. It was leading narrowly in Spokane, but not so in King County, where it was trailing 51 to 49 percent.

Statewide, it was passing with about 51 percent of the vote.

King County accounts for about a third of the remaining votes statewide. An estimated 60 percent of the vote was counted Tuesday.

Charter supporters were optimistic the measure will pass.

“We’ve run an aggressive, positive, high-road campaign,” said Lisa Macfarlane, one of the leaders of Yes on 1240. She said she talked on Tuesday night to a lot of Democrats who said they’d supported the measure.

But the No on 1240 campaign was elated that the results remained so close given that they were outspent by about $10 million.

“We did a lot of mail and phone calls the last week and a half, and we think that’s having an impact,” said Marianne Bichsel, spokeswoman for People for Our Public Schools.

If the measure passes, up to 40 charter schools could open here over five years, starting as early as next fall. The charters would be public schools, funded with tax dollars, but run by private, nonprofit organizations. They would not be bound by most of the rules that govern traditional public schools. Existing schools also could apply to convert into charters.

Washington voters have turned down charter schools three times before — in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

Supporters hoped they’d be successful this fourth time around, given that charters have become common across the nation, with nearly 6,000 operating in 41 states.

The campaign drew national interest from groups curious to see if Washington voters will finally agree to give charters a chance. As in past campaigns, supporters raised much more money than opponents and were able to buy a series of television ads. The largest three donors were Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen, and Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton.

The pro-charter campaign didn’t bash all public schools, but promoted charters as a way to give struggling students in low-income neighborhoods another option for succeeding.

As in the past, nearly all of the state’s education groups opposed the charter measure — the teachers union and organizations representing school-board members, school administrators, principals and parents. But the Washington Education Association — one of the biggest donors in the past — didn’t contribute as much money to the campaign this year.

Opponents argued that charters would siphon dollars from other public schools, which the state Supreme Court has already ruled are underfunded. They also highlighted the fact that charters have a mixed record across the nation, and wouldn’t be as accountable to taxpayers as other public schools.