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Cash, Votes, and Charter History in the Evergreen State

UPDATED

I've been in Washington State since Columbus Day to do some reporting on what has become a three-ring circus for education policy. We've got a gubernatorial contest between a Republican, state Attorney General Rob McKenna, who supports both charters and increasing the share of the state budget pie going to K-12 public schools, and a Democrat, former congressman Jay Inslee, who opposes charters despite the feelings of many fellow liberals in the state. We've got a ballot initiative to allow charters. And there's a school funding ruling by the state Supreme Court that could radically alter K-12 finance in the Evergreen State.

Recent polling shows the charter initiative winning, but history shows that the numbers could actually mean trouble for supporters of Initiative 1240.

In a September poll by Elway Research, a Washington State polling firm, 47 percent of respondents supported charters, compared to 38 percent opposed, virtually unchanged from its July polling numbers. But previous charter initiatives polled well above 50 percent until not long before the elections, when opposition ads began running in earnest and support collapsed, said Stuart Elway, the president of Elway Research. In the most recent charter initiative, voters said no to charters 58 percent to 42 percent, despite public support from people like civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks.

In addition, Elway said the charter initiative was losing attention for eyeballs and ears, compared to other ballot initiatives that would legalize gay marriage and some marijuana use. Out of the last 72 ballot initiatives, only eight polled below 60 percent in the July-August period and won.

Still, Mr. Elway said he believed wealthy backers of 1240 were not just providing additional infusions of pro-charter campaign cash, but also being more public about their support.

The Washington Coalition for Public Charter Schools has received $3 million from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, as well as $1.1 million from Alice Walton, a daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton. Another $1 million in total donations has come from from relatives of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Other individuals and groups, from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to Democrats for Education Reform, have also chipped in. Contributions total about $8.3 million, which beats out the $3.8 million fundraising mark for charter advocates at about this time of the year in 2004, the last time charters were on the ballot, the Seattle Times reported that year. [UPDATED - Thanks to Ken Libby at the National Education Policy Center for notifying me about updated campaign finance numbers.]

"I think there's a lot of money behind charter schools that hasn't been there before, that really hasn't been spent yet," Mr. Elway told me last week. "If all that money gets spent in last 30 days here, that could make an effect. But I'd think it'd have to be moving out now."

There are two anti-charter campaigns, No on 1240 and People for Our Public Schools, and the 82,000-member Washington Education Association and its local affiliates have contributed about $175,000 to their efforts, while AFT Washington has given $7,500. State Rep. Marcie Maxwell, who sits on the House's education and education appropriations and oversight committee, is also a donor. The two campaigns combined have raised about $275,000. That number, however, falls far short of the $1.3 million raised eight years ago specifically to fight charters in Washington. The National Education Association contributed $500,000 to that fight. The NEA's present position is to support charters, albeit with with conditions.

Mr. Inslee has received financial support from the Washington Education Association, the 82,000-member state teachers union, while Mr. McKenna picked up a campaign contribution from the Association of Washington School Principals.

In the general election, Mr. Inslee and Mr. McKenna are running a relatively close race. Polling from Mr. Elway's firm from September showed a 3-point lead for the Democrat, while a different, more recent Oct. 2 poll showed a 6-point edge for Mr. Inslee.

But when Elway Research recently asked which candidate they supported on education issues, there's no clear winner. The survey showed 31 percent favoring Mr. Inslee and 30 percent for Mr. McKenna.

I'll have several other blog posts coming up dealing with the unique and complex educational policy (and politics) landscape in Washington State, so please check back in.

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