For the fourth time since 1996, Washington State will have a November ballot measure on charter schools. This one, like each of its predecessors, is the brainchild of a handful of technology giants.
SEATTLE — Coming to our ballot in November is a measure, Initiative 1240, asking Washington voters to allocate public tax revenues to alternative schools. These “charter schools” are exempt from some government rules and regulations and have greater flexibility in curriculum and teaching methods.
Actually, we should say coming again to the ballot.
State voters voted down charter school ballot measures in 1996, 2000, and 2004. But some wealthy individuals are committed to these schools and are funding I-1240. It would allow up to 40 independent public schools to operate in the state.
Of the $2.3 million raised by the “Yes on I-1240” campaign as of the July 6 signature filing deadline to get the initiative on the ballot, the state’s Public Disclosure Commission reports $1.6 million came from seven families tied to Microsoft. Add one Amazon family to this tech millionaires club, and the total is $2.1 million.
Microsoft executives Bill Gates and Paul Allen have been major supporters of this family of ballot measures to the tune of more than $5 million.
Other heavy hitters have joined the cause since the filing deadline. Specifically, Alice Walton of the Walmart family donated $600,000 while Seattle philanthropists Bruce and Jolene McCaw ponied up $100,000. The Secretary of State’s office certified the initiative for the November ballot yesterday, by which time the total raised was $3.2 million.
Charter schools are open to all students and they cannot charge tuition. Those that would be authorized by this initiative would be exempt from some state statutes and rules “for the purpose of allowing flexibility to innovate in areas such as scheduling, personnel, funding, and educational programs” (Section 204(3)).
If voters adopt I-1240, they will be saying “yes” to a new state agency — the Washington Charter School Commission. They are directing the state’s Board of Education to manage the process for approving charter schools. They agree Washington charter schools must follow practices developed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Robertson Foundation — some of the very people bankrolling this initiative.
In addition, I-1240 enables an existing public school to be converted to a charter school if the applicant has majority support of the parents or of the teachers. The resulting charter school would not pay rent to the public school district that owns the facility.
Ballot measures in years past provide a financial map for the current initiative.
In 2004 voters soundly rejected — 58.3% to 41.7% — Referendum 55, which would have upheld a law passed by the state legislature that authorized charter schools. Procedurally Referendum 55 operated the same as this year’s Referendum 74 on same-sex marriage: voters get a chance to approve or reject recent legislative action.
According to FollowTheMoney, here were the top five R-55 contributors (accompanied by percentage of total money raised) in 2004:
- John T. Walton (Walmart) — $1,020,000 (25.86%)
- Bill Gates (Microsoft) — $1,000,000 (25.35%)
- Donald G. Fisher (The Gap) — $965,388 (24.47%)
- Eli Broad (Real estate & insurance magnate) — $200,000 (5.07%)
- Reed Hastings (Netflix) — $190,255 (4.82%)
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos tied with four others for number six on the list; his $100,000 accounting for 2.53% of the total dollars raised.
In 2000 voters narrowly defeated — 51.83% to 48.17% — I-729. This initiative, the Charter Schools Act, would have authorized 80 charter schools, according to the Washington Research Council. The Seattle Times reported Paul Allen contributed about $3 million to that failed effort. Despite its narrow defeat, I-729 was rejected by the voters in every single county.
In 1996 Washington voters overwhelmingly defeated — 64.43% to 35.57% — I-177, the state’s first charter schools initiative.
In 2008 charter school students accounted for just 3 percent of all public school students in America. According to the Center for Education Reform, charter schools operate in 41 states and the District of Columbia. States without legislation authorizing charter schools are Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia.
Round 4 in Washington state arrives November 6.