Billionaire Joins Drive for Charters In Wash.
Supporters of the effort to bring charter schools to Washington state hit the jackpot late last month when billionaire Paul G. Allen decided to lend his formidable financial clout to their cause.
The Microsoft Corp. co-founder and his family announced on May 24 that they had hired a public relations firm to manage the signature drive for a statewide initiative that would allow up to 80 charter schools to open over the next four years. The Allen family said it also would help finance a promotional campaign if the measure makes it onto the November ballot.
If Mr. Allen is successful, Washington will become the 37th state to allow the publicly funded but largely independent schools.
"I have a really good feeling about this," said James Spady, who with his wife, Dawn, headed a similar ballot initiative in Washington in 1996 that was defeated by a 2-1 ratio. ("Wash. Choice Proposals Go Down to Defeat," Nov. 13, 1996.)
"To win an election you have to have the money to reach people," Mr. Spady said. "In the previous election, our opponents simply outspent us, but no one outspends Paul Allen in politics."
The Spadys, founders of the Education Excellence Coalition in Seattle, filed Initiative 729 in February. They will continue to serve as advisers to the campaign but, Mr. Spady said, they will leave the day-to-day operations to the Allen family, which has agreed to spend about $200,000 on the signature drive alone.
The couple has tried over the past four years to get the state legislature to authorize charter schools, and Mr. Allen's lobbyists joined in the effort this year—but to no avail. The legislation on which the ballot measure is loosely based died in the House when it became clear that the Democrats controlling the Senate would block its passage.
Conflict of Interest?
Support for charter schools has grown since Washington residents were last asked to consider them. Both major presidential candidates back the movement, and Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat, endorsed the proposed ballot measure last month. As many as 2,000 charter schools will be operating across the country in September, compared with just 178 in 1996.
The Washington Education Association fought the charter school initiative put on the ballot four years ago, but this year the teachers' union worked with legislators on a compromise bill that would have been more restrictive than the measure supported by Mr. Allen.
"We believe that in our state, charter schools are still a new concept we should approach slowly and not rush," said Rich G. Wood, the spokesman for the state affiliate of the National Education Association. "That said, we have not done anything to support or oppose this initiative yet."
WEA members are instead focusing their efforts on collecting signatures for another proposed ballot initiative that would provide automatic cost-of-living pay increases for teachers and other school employees.
The Washington State Labor Council, however, actively opposes the charter school initiative, and will urge its 400,000 rank-and-file members not to support the effort to collect 180,000 signatures by July 7.
"Our delegates feel that legalizing charter schools would divert tax dollars from the public school system to experimental, semi-private schools," said David N. Groves, a spokesman for the state counterpart to the AFL-CIO.
The Washington Association of School Administrators is also gearing up for a "no" campaign. The group's executive director, Doyle E. Winter, suggested that Mr. Allen has taken up the cause because of his $30 million investment in Edison Schools Inc., the New York City-based school management company.
"Under the proposed initiative, the [operating] boards of charters must be nonprofit, but those nonprofits can contract with whomever they want to run the schools," Mr. Winter said. "Now, I think that may indicate that Edison Schools is on their way into Washington."
David Schaefer, a spokesman for the company hired by Mr. Allen to coordinate the signature drive for the charter school initiative, said the businessman's financial interest in Edison and his desire to bring charter schools to the state are unrelated.
"For him to invest whatever [this campaign] is going to cost, just to add one state for a company he has a minority interest in—the economics just don't work," Mr. Schaefer said. "His investment in Edison Schools helped him become interested in charter schools, but I don't think you can question his philanthropic credentials in education."
Mr. Allen, who has donated about $22 million to education in the past decade, is also giving $200,000 to help collect signatures for another state ballot initiative that would finance smaller classes and other improvements in regular public schools.
Vol. 19, Issue 39, Pages 18, 22Published in Print: June 7, 2000, as Billionaire Joins Drive for Charters In Wash.