Why would wealthy charter school supporters be spending big bucks to defeat the chief justice of the Washington state Supreme Court?
In September, the court ruled that charter schools are unconstitutional because they are governed by appointed — rather than elected — boards and therefore are not “common schools” eligible for state education funds. The chief justice, Barbara Madsen, wrote that “money that is dedicated to common schools is unconstitutionally diverted to charter schools.”
Now, charter supporters, including some who don’t even live in Washington, are backing a candidate who is trying to oust her.
It’s news, but the general practice isn’t exactly new. For years now, wealthy proponents of school choice and corporate school reform have spent a good deal of money to fund like-minded candidates and referendums wherever they happened to be across the country.
Last year, for example, California businessman Eli Broad and Alice and Jim Walton, heirs to the Walmart fortune from Arkansas, together poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into races for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in Louisiana in an effort to help keep its majority friendly to corporate school reform. In 2013, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $1 million to a candidate for the Board of Education in Los Angeles, clear across the country.
In 2012, Washington state voters — who had rejected opening public charter schools three times before — narrowly passed a pro-charter Initiative 1240 that had major financial support from charter backers such as Bill Gates, who donated about $2 million to the cause, and Alice Walton, who spent more than $1 million even though she doesn’t live in Washington like Gates does. Other major donors included Vulcan Inc., owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and Connie Ballmer.
That law was challenged in 2013 by a coalition of organizations, which argued that the law “improperly” diverted public school funds to organizations that are private and “not subject to local voter control.” Madsen, in the majority opinion, agreed. The state legislature earlier this year passed a bill that would keep charter schools open in the state by funding them in a different way than before. It became law without the governor’s signature, though a legal challenge is expected.
Now some of the same backers of the 2012 charter initiative are spending money to defeat Madsen by supporting her primary challenger in November’s election, county prosecutor Greg Zempel, who has criticized the court’s charter school decision.
According to a story by the News Tribune in the Seattle Times, the political arm of an organization called Stand for Children is backing Zempel, with some $116,000 in July alone.
Most of the cash is coming from Connie Ballmer, a philanthropist married to former Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer, who gave $500,000. Also contributing are Vulcan Inc. and Netflix founder and Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings. The News Tribune said that this “constitutes the biggest infusion of outside cash in a Washington judicial race since 2010” and noted that the “PAC’s expenditures on Zempel’s behalf dwarf what he or Madsen have raised on their own: about $38,000 and $30,000, respectively.”
In 2011, Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman, co-founder and chief executive officer, was caught on video, bragging about how he manipulated people to get reform legislation passed in Illinois. He issued an apology, but the Illinois Education Association refused to accept it.