Articles About Jim & Fawn Spady

In SB 5012, couple see light at the end of a very long tunnel -
'A' for charter schools effort
April 4, 2003

By Phuong Cat Le, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter

OLYMPIA -- Washington inched ever closer yesterday to allowing charters schools in the state, representing a personal victory for two parents and an effort that started eight years ago.

It's been a mission for Jim and Fawn Spady, a Mercer Island couple who began gathering signatures in 1995 for the first state initiative to authorize charter schools, which use tax money but can operate independently of local school districts.

Two initiatives failed. Four legislative measures died.

Over the years, big names such as billionaire Paul Allen jumped into the controversial debate. The couple have faced opposition from the education establishment, which fears that charter schools would siphon money from public schools.

Along the way, the Spadys' two young children grew up, and one went off to college. But the couple stuck with the issue, lobbying with other supporters this week for Senate Bill 5012.

The bill passed out of the House Education Committee yesterday with narrow bipartisan support. Lawmakers expect the bill to change further before it goes to a House vote, where it is expected to pass in some form.

The new version includes a requirement that two-thirds of authorized charter schools serve disadvantaged students or those from low-performing schools. It also requires the schools to enroll at least the same percentage of disadvantaged students as the district average.

Under the bill, sponsored by Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Kent, 70 charters schools could be set up over the next six years with only five new schools in each of the first two years. A school would have to be sponsored by a school district or a university, and its mission would have to be spelled out in a charter that could be revoked if it didn't meet standards.

"This is by far the best chance we've got to get a bill all the way to the governor's desk, said Jim Spady, 45, whose father, Dick, founded Dick's Drive-In Restaurants and who is the chain's chief executive officer. He added, "It's not over until it's over."

Spady tempered excitement yesterday with the kind of pragmatism conditioned by years of setbacks.

Former political novices who have quickly adapted to Olympia, the couple learned over the years to be persistent and accept that good ideas and bills take time.

Today, more than 2,000 charter schools operate across the country and serve more than half a million kids. Despite charter-school laws in 39 states, controversy hasn't subsided over time.

Critics worry that charter schools skim good students and precious dollars from public schools. Others say they won't be held accountable to a local school board.

It would cost the state about $2.4 million in the initial years. Opponents said the state should first fund two voter-approved education initiatives, for smaller class sizes and teachers raises, before funding a new system.

"This not about taking a risk. It's about listening to the voice of the people," Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe testified at a House hearing last month. She successfully blocked previous bills as former chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. Voters turned down charter schools in 1996 by a 2-to-1 ratio, and again in 2000, she said.

Charter schools in other states have had failures. Some have shut down and left students stranded. But they have also reported successes and higher achievement for poor and minority children.

Supporters such as the Spadys say charter schools give parents and teachers more control and room to be more innovative, free from bureaucratic rules. Under such a structure, the schools can offer new ways to help students who aren't making it in traditional schools.

House Education Chairman Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon, said charter schools in other states have improved performance for poor and minority children.

"Let's give that same opportunity to dedicated teachers and parents who might like to try a different way," he said yesterday.

Eight years ago, the Spadys were parents looking for that different way when they joined the charter school movement.

The couple pulled their son, Saul, out of a Seattle elementary school after becoming disenchanted with the school's inability to accommodate parents who wanted to be involved.

"When we pulled him out, there were parents standing outside saying, 'I wish we could do this. We can't afford it.' That really struck us," Fawn Spady recalled. She sent her children to a private school, but knew others couldn't do the same. She and her husband believed charter schools were the answer.

Their didn't get enough signatures for the first charter school initiative, but dug into their own pockets to bankroll Initiative 177 in 1996. They filed but sat on the sidelines for Initiative I-729 in 2000, which narrowly lost despite being backed by Paul Allen and a $3.6 million campaign.

"They've been very single-minded in their commitment, and certainly I respect that," Quall said of the couple. "It takes people like that to keep the flame alive."

The two met at Arizona State University and have been married 21 years. Jim Spady has juggled working at his father's business with his charter school efforts.

The energetic couple talk fast, often interrupting or finishing each other's sentences. Over lunch one afternoon, they fielded several phone calls, including one from their 17-year-old daughter, Jasmine, who wanted an update on their lobbying efforts.

"When we first started this, we thought it would only be a year," said Fawn Spady. "We'll be working on this for the rest of our lives."


P-I reporter Phuong Cat Le can be reached at 360-943-8311 or phuongle@seattlepi.com

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