A new analysis of how charter school legislation passed by popular vote in 2012 in the state of Washington — after voters had rejected similar measures three times earlier — concludes that 21 vastly wealthy people, including Bill Gates, and their philanthropic organizations had a disproportionate influence on the outcome by donating millions of dollars to the cause.

The analysis, which analyzed the relationships and affiliations of policy actors in the campaign to pass Initiative 1240, was conducted by Wayne Au, an associate professor in the education program at the University of Washington at Bothell, and an editor for the social justice magazine, Rethinking Schools; and Joseph J. Ferrare, a researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research  at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was published in Teachers College Record.

Washington state voters who had rejected the opening of public charter schools  in 1996, 2000 and 2004, passed the ballot initiative in November 2012 by about 1 percentage point after some billionaires and their foundations donated a total of more than $10 million to support it. Gates donated more than $3 million. The researchers found that of the  $10.9 million raised for the Yes On 1240 campaign, $10.65 million  of it, or almost 98 percent, was funded by 21 individuals and organizations who each donated more than $50,000 to the campaign.


Table 1: Yes On I-1240 Campaign Cash and In-kind Contributions of $50k and More

Yes On 1240 Donor

Donation Amount


Bill Gates Jr. – Microsoft cofounder and current chairman



Alice Walton – heiress; daughter of Walmart founder, Sam Walton



Vulcan Inc. – founded by Paul Allen, Microsoft cofounder



Nicolas Hanauer – venture capitalist



Mike Bezos – father of founder Jeff Bezos



Jackie Bezos – mother of founder Jeff Bezos



Connie Ballmer – wife of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer



Anne Dinning – managing director D.E. Shaw Investments



Michael Wolf – Yahoo! Inc. board of directors



Katherine Binder – EMFCO Holdings chairwoman



Eli Broad – real estate mogul



Benjamin Slivka – formerly Microsoft; DreamBox Learning cofounder



Reed Hastings – Netflix cofounder and CEO



Microsoft Corporation



Gabe Newell – formerly Microsoft; Valve Corporation cofounder



Doris Fisher – Gap Inc. cofounder



Kemper Holdings LLC – local Puget Sound developer



CSG Channels



Education Reform Now



Bruce McCaw –McCaw Cellular founder



Jolene McCaw – spouse of Bruce McCaw


Source: Washington State Public Disclosure Commission (2012a)

The researchers concluded that

“Compared to the average voter in Washington, an elite group of wealthy individuals, either directly through individual donations or indirectly through their affiliated philanthropic organizations, wielded disproportionate influence over the outcome of the charter school initiative in the state, thereby raising serious concerns about the democratic underpinnings of an education policy that impacts all of the children in Washington State. This study also concludes that elite individuals make use of local nonprofit organizations as a mechanism to advance their education policy agenda by funding those nonprofits through the philanthropic organizations affiliated with those same wealthy elites. In light of these conclusions, the authors recommend that a mechanism for more democratic accountability be developed relative to education policy campaigns, initiatives, and legislation.”


It’s worth noting that Education Secretary Arne Duncan “>recently said in this video that individuals and foundations that donate big money to education initiatives do not “have a seat at the table in terms of policymaking.” As veteran educator and blogger Anthony Cody wrote in this blog post:

… let’s take a look at what Secretary Duncan is telling us. It actually boggles my mind that he would say that Bill Gates has no seat at the policy table.


 (DISCLOSURE: The Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, whose parents are listed above as supporters of the charter school initiative.)