Longtime public-school supporter Lisa Macfarlane once opposed opening charter schools in this state. Now she's leading the campaign for Initiative 1240, which would allow up to 40 charters here.

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Sixteen years ago, in another chilly October, parent and school-levy volunteer Lisa Macfarlane managed a phone bank for the anti-charter-school campaign.

Back then, Macfarlane believed charters — the privately run, publicly funded schools that were cropping up in many states — would weaken the public school system she was working hard to strengthen.

Every night for about a month, she rounded up a roomful of volunteers to call voters to persuade them to keep charter schools out of Washington.

Charters, she said, “felt like an attack on public schools.”

Yet this October, as the state’s fourth charter-school campaign heats up, Macfarlane, in a complete reversal, is working hard to bring charters here. President Obama’s support of charters made her re-examine her own views a few years ago, she said, and she’s decided her stance on charters was all wrong.

Now she sees them as a way to bolster the public school system, by providing better options for struggling students.

“We’ve got to do better by a group of kids that aren’t faring well in our traditional public schools,” she said.

The big question for charter supporters this November is whether enough other Washington voters will also change their minds this time around and approve Initiative 1240, after having decisively rejected charter ballot measures in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

Initiative 1240 would allow 40 charters to open in the state over five years.

Supporters face a less-well-funded, but still passionate opposition that includes most of the state’s education organizations — not just the teachers union, but the principals association and groups that represent parents, school-board members and superintendents.

Most of those organizations still see charters as a distraction at best, and a drain on existing public schools that already are suffering from budget cuts.

To date, polls show roughly 50 percent of voters saying they’ll approve I-1240 in November. But that’s less support than most successful ballot initiatives usually have at this point in the year, according to Seattle pollster Stuart Elway.

At the same time, he said, the measure hasn’t lost ground since the summer, as initiatives historically do.

The biggest supporters of charters are Republicans, not Democrats such as Macfarlane.

In Elway’s poll, 62 percent of Republicans said they favored the measure, compared with 36 percent of Democrats. But the measure’s fate probably lies with the large number of undecided voters — about 16 percent in Elway’s most recent poll.

For every Macfarlane, opponents hope there may be a Melissa Westbrook, another Seattle parent and education blogger who is leading one of two campaign groups working to defeat I-1240.

Westbrook says she’s visited three charter schools and delved into the research, as Macfarlane has, and concluded that charters are worse than she thought.

“Sadly so,” she said. “I had hoped to be surprised.”

And for every Macfarlane, there may be a Mary Alice Heuschel, superintendent of the Renton School District, who supported the charter initiative in 2004 but opposes this latest one.

“There is a way to get this right,” Heuschel said. “I don’t think Initiative 1240 is it.”

Money is a concern of both Heuschel and Westbrook, since every student who switches out of a traditional public school would take thousands of dollars to the charter school, leaving the former school with even less money yet mostly the same expenses.

“When you have scarce resources,” says Westbrook, “you don’t vote on a wish or a hope.”

Heuschel also opposes the creation of a separate state commission to administer charters, as I-1240 proposes. She believes the state superintendent’s office, where she once worked, should be in charge, since the superintendent is the elected official charged with overseeing all public schools.

Westbrook, who opposes charter schools generally and this initiative in particular, cites research that shows they have a mixed track record, often don’t get shut down when they don’t live up to promises, and don’t serve as many special-education or homeless students as other public schools. She also worries about the proposal that would allow existing schools to convert into charters with the backing of only half the parents, or the teachers.

A passionate supporter

Because such proposals would still have to be approved by the state charter commission or a school district, Macfarlane and other supporters brush off such fears as unrealistic.

Supporters hope voters will be swayed by the popularity of charters across the country, which now number nearly 6,000 in 41 states and the District of Columbia.

They also hope many voters, like Macfarlane, will be willing to take the risk that Washington could attract charter schools with the best records elsewhere.

Macfarlane still works on every Seattle levy campaign with the same passion she had years ago when, after one levy failed, she was so upset she drove away from a gas pump with the hose still attached to her car.

As the sponsor of a successful statewide funding initiative in 2000, she’s probably done as much as anyone to increase funding for the state’s public schools.

If she still thought charters would hurt other public schools, she told a skeptical audience at a recent election forum, “I wouldn’t be standing here in support.”

Supporters once again have the financial advantage. They’ve raised $9.3 million to date, mostly from personal contributions from a handful of wealthy people, many of whom have supported charter schools nationally. The biggest donor is Bill Gates, followed by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton.

Gates — through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — also has been a major funder of the League of Education Voters, which Macfarlane co-founded in 2001. It’s one of the groups that wants to bring more of Obama’s education policies to this state.

Macfarlane now directs the Washington Chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, a year-old group based on similar ones in other states.

The anti-charter campaign has a longer list of supporters, but only enough money for fliers and yard signs, not the television ads that supporters are running.

One of the opponents’ biggest donors in the past — the Washington Education Association — is focusing its attention this year on electing Democrat Jay Inslee as governor.

Yet the pro-charter forces had a lot of money in the last three campaigns, too, and still lost. In two of the three, they got creamed.

Impressed by her visits

At the recent election forum, held at the Horizon House retirement community, Macfarlane, who is usually more earnest than abrasive, started her remarks by saying that she was going to disagree with nearly everything Westbrook said.

She told the audience that she voted against charters three times, and then, curious about Obama’s stance, visited eight or nine that serve the type of students I-1240 could help — mostly those whose families are poor.

Unlike Westbrook, she came away impressed with the charters she visited, and was inspired to give them a try in Washington.

“You wish more kids could have that option,” she said.

Public schools do a great job with many, she says, but charters would give struggling students a better option.

“The resistance,” she said, “feels silly.”

The roomful of seniors peppered her with concerns about charters — whether they would serve special-education students well, or cherry-pick the best students, or whether they could be run by for-profit firms.

The moderator even stepped out of her neutral role to question how much charters would cost.

Macfarlane, in turn, challenged them.

“What are we scared of?” she asked. “That they’ll work?”

She knew she would meet resistance with the Horizon House group, which includes a number of retired teachers. She knows their positions well. She used to share them.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com