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Billionaires, Ballots and a State Budget Crisis Drive Education Reform in Washington State: A Case Study

(Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr)

Up until November 6th, Washington was one of eight states that did not have a charter school within its borders, and by all accounts it didn’t seem like that was going to change anytime soon. Voters had rejected charter initiatives three times – in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

But that was before millionaire donors like Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Alice Walton of Walmart fame poured millions of dollars into Ballot Initiative 1240, opening the state up to charter schools for the first time.

In the case of Washington State, a coalition that included well-known education reform groups like Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform hired people to gather enough signatures to get the initiative on the ballot, bought TV air time and sent canvassers door-to-door urging residents to vote yes on 1240.

When 1240 passed, despite opposition from the governor, many lawmakers and the teachers union, it was the closest vote among state initiatives in the 2012 election.

Big Money, Big Plans

The story of Washington is symbolic of where the fight for public education is playing out – with shrinking funds at the local level and big money coming in from the outside.

After the third failure to pass legislation on an initiative that would allow charter schools into Washington, the well-funded education reform groups decided to take matters into their own hands.

The group behind the initiative called itself Yes on 1240 – now The Washington Coalition for Public Charter Schools. The initiative will bring as many as 40 new charter schools into Washington over the next five years.

It took only 18 days from the time the group got the go-ahead from a judge to collect signatures for a ballot initiative, to when they had exceeded the minimum 250,000 signatures.

DC Charter School.(Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr)Washington is one of few states that allows paid signature-collectors, and by July 2012 the group had signed up 350,000 people in favor of the ballot.

“We really looked at what are the different ways in which we can bring charter schools to Washington,” said Jana Carlisle, executive director of Partnership for Learning, a Washington-based education nonprofit that worked with Yes on 1240. “There was a general consensus that doing it during a general election made a lot of sense. That is kind of the genesis of the initiative – it was an outgrowth of prior legislative attempts to provide innovative schools for struggling kids in particular.”

As in many school districts around the country, Washington’s low-income population is disproportionately minority. According to data from the American Community Survey, 28 percent of the state’s white children under the age of 18 were living in poverty, while 60 percent of African-American children were living at or below the poverty line. A majority of American Indian and Hispanic children were also in poverty.

The statewide high school drop-out rate was 4.4 percent, according to Washington’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, while for American Indians it was 10.7 percent; 6.9 percent for African-American students and 5.9 percent for Hispanic students in the 2010-2011 school year.

By the time Yes on 1240 had turned in their signatures to get the initiative on the ballot, they also had amassed a large portion of their donations. According to a Truthout analysis of financial disclosure records, between June 5, 2012, and July 6, 2012, Yes on 1240 had raised more than $2 million.

In total, the group raised more than $10.8 million in just under five months, from 181 donors. Donors included Bill Gates, who gave $3 million; Walmart heiress Alice Walton gave $1.7 million; Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, gave $1.6 million and Connie Ballmer, wife of the CEO of Microsoft, gave $500,000.

The money from the No on 1240 campaign, collected over four months, totaled a little more than $15,000, from 86 donors.

“It was a very clear picture of education reform and business versus parents and community,” said Melissa Westbrook, a public education activist and chair of the No on 1240 campaign. “Because of the amount of money they have, they get to dominate the conversation. There might be other things that have to get done, but people follow the money.”

Glenn Anderson, a Washington State representative listed on the Yes on 1240 web site as in favor the measure, did not respond to a request for comment.

As the donations rushed in for the Yes on 1240 campaign, Washington was embroiled in a state supreme court case about school funding. In January 2012, the court ruled that Washington was failing to do its duty in funding K-12 education. Nearly a year later, in December, the court said too little progress had been made in putting more funding toward education.

“Steady progress requires forward movement. Slowing the pace of funding cuts is necessary, but it does not equate to forward progress,” said Chief Justice Barbara Madsen in the court’s December opinion.

In the past ten years, according to the Associated Press, education spending has gone from nearly 50 percent, to just above 40 percent of the state budget. In the 2009-2011 state budget, investments in early learning were cut by $12 million (8.8 percent) and the budget for K-12 was cut by $1.6 billion (10.3 percent).

Lawmakers need an estimated $1 billion to $1.5 billion to fulfill their obligations in the court case.

Opponents of 1240 have said the new initiative will drain public schools of even more resources, which they argue could better be used for arts, music and new technology.

This also was a concern that Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire had expressed.

“The governor’s main concern was that we don’t have the funding right now to support charter schools,” said Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office. “We have a proven record with other alternative schools here that have had success, so the governor didn’t see the need right now to encourage new charter schools, especially when there is no record to prove that they are highly successful.”

Shannon Campion, spokesperson for Yes on 1240 and the executive director of Stand for Children in Washington, told The Nation that funding will not be an issue, because funding follows a student when they move from one public school to another.

“Public charter schools are cracking the code in how to serve at-risk and struggling students,” she said.

The Washington Charter School Commission has been created as an independent state agency to oversee the initiative.

The state teachers union also has filed a lawsuit against the charter measure, and speculation continues in Washington as to whether the state schools superintendent also will sue.

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