Did Philanthropists “Buy” Wash. Charter School Approval?

November 9, 2012; Source: Diane Ravitch’s Blog

In the state of Washington, the “Yes on 1240 WA Coalition for Public Charter Schools” initiative squeaked by on Election Day to authorize the establishment of up to 40 charter schools in the Evergreen State. Diane Ravitch points us to the state government’s list of the donations supporting the initiative. Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission lists 203 donations, though some of those were multiple donations by the same donor. NPQ Newswire readers will know many of these donors as having identities as philanthropists. We list some of them below.

Bill Gates put $3 million into the campaign. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been a major supporter of charter schools, including several large multi-million dollar grants to KIPP and Green Dot charter schools as well as an array of the nation’s charter school advocacy organizations.

Alice Walton contributed $1.7 million toward the Washington campaign. Residing in Bentonville, Ark. and identifying herself as “self-employed,” the daughter of Sam and Helen Walton is a board member of the Walton Family Foundation and is the nation’s 10th-wealthiest person and second wealthiest woman. A noted art collector and horse breeder, Walton, like her family, is a true believer in school choice and sees charters as one of the avenues toward reaching that objective.

Paul Allen made two contributions to the charter school campaign that added up to $1.6 million. Listed as employed by Vulcan, the billionaire Allen is the co-founder of Microsoft with Gates. Vulcan is the investment and management firm that handles Allen’s multiple business interests, including his investments in the Oxygen network, Charter Communications, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Portland Trailblazers, just to mention a few over the years. He is also the founder of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, which has supported many nonprofit ventures in the northwest.

Jackie and Mike Bezos gave a total of $1 million for the charter school initiative. The parents of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, they established the Bezos Family Foundation, which includes strengthening the K-12 public education system as one of its three focus areas, though the foundation doesn’t mention charter schools within that part of its program.

Nick Hanauer provided donations that added up to $1 million. A progressive millionaire who we featured on the NPQ website because of TED’s unwillingness to distribute his speech on taxing the wealthy, Hanauer is an investor with Second Avenue Partners.

Connie Ballmer added two donations to the campaign that added up to $500,000. Identified on the Commission’s donation page as a homemaker, Ballmer is the wife of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. The Microsoft company itself added another $100,000 to the campaign.

There are plenty more wealthy businessmen/philanthropists behind this campaign, such as: Benjamin Slivka, known for having led the Internet Explorer team at Microsoft ($124,200); Netflix CEO Reed Hastings ($100,000); Los Angeles real estate investor Eli Broad, chairman of the Broad Foundation ($200,000); and Gabe Newell, the billionaire owner of the videogame maker Valve Corporation ($100,000).

Ravitch offers a succinct analysis of these rich philanthropists behind the charter school initiative: “In this election, a small number of extremely rich people decided they really wanted charters…(T)hey raised $10 million to beat back the parents and educators of the state, who could not match their spending…It is shocking to see how much money is being poured into state and local races by a small number of incredibly rich people. This is a good argument for raising taxes on the super-rich. Then they have less money to buy elections.” –Rick Cohen

  • michael

    Ask yourself what else do these Philanthropists have in common…..could it be that all of them require an educated workforce to be competitive in the global market? Could it be that they have first hand knowledge about the deplorable product produced by public schools? Could it be that they are advocating real reform as a way to keep the American economy competitive in the face an increasingly literate/numerate global workforce.

    Think about it.

  • Ellie Kesselman

    Michael,
    That is rather telling, as to your view of the plebisite: “the deplorable product produced by public schools”? That is NOT an appropriate, nor humane way to describe children and young adults. The young people of the U.S.A. are NOT a “deplorable product”.

    Where did YOU go to school? Was it a public school? Were you among the deplorable product referenced? And if not, think about why that may have been the case. People, and children, and school teachers, have not fundamentally changed. Something else, maybe massive shift of wealth and access to a tiny concentration of individuals, maybe other factors, are likely to be accountable.