Washington News

The Seattle Times
September 10, 2004

Gates' Donation Supports Charter Schools

By LINDA SHAW, Seattle Times Staff Reporter

The last time charter schools were on the ballot, billionaire Paul Allen bankrolled a campaign that topped $3 million. This year, Microsoft co-founder and Chairman Bill Gates is donating significant dollars.

Gates yesterday announced a $300,000 personal contribution to the campaign to approve Referendum 55, which seeks to uphold the charter-school law passed by the Legislature last spring.

In a statement, Gates said: "Approving R-55 will give Washington state parents and teachers an important tool to help improve our public schools and help students who are falling through the cracks."

Gates is the third wealthy individual to make a big contribution. A few weeks ago, John Walton, of the family that started Wal-Mart, and Donald Fisher, co-founder of the GAP clothing chain, each gave $300,000, too.

Those are among the largest single contributions ever made in an initiative campaign, although there have been larger ones. This year, for example, the Tulalip Tribes gave $1 million to the campaign to defeat Initiative 892, which would expand slot machines beyond tribal casinos.

Referendum 55 is another round in a decadelong fight in Washington state between those who believe charter schools can be a good addition to the public-school system, and those who think they will damage it.

Charters are a new breed of public schools, now operating in nearly 30 states, run by nonprofit organizations under a contract, or "charter," with a school district or, depending on the state, other public agencies.

The bill passed in Olympia last spring would allow a limited number of charter schools here, with preference given to those who enroll low-income students. Charter-school opponents, led by the Washington Education Association teachers union, then collected enough signatures to ask voters to repeal that law. They are asking voters to vote no on the referendum, which will be on the November ballot.

The charter-school opponents, led by the WEA, have raised about a third of what the supporters have. They have raised $379,723, but spent all but about $168,000 of that for signature gatherers to help get the referendum on the ballot.

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