Washington News

The Seattle Times
August 27, 2004

Charter Schools Get $600,000

By LINDA SHAW, Seattle Times staff reporter

Supporters of charter schools received $600,000 last week from two wealthy individuals, Donald Fisher, co-founder and former chairman of the Gap, and John Walton of the family that founded Wal-Mart.

Fisher and Walton each contributed $300,000 to the effort to uphold a law passed in the spring that would allow a limited number of charter schools serving low-income students in Washington state. After that vote, charter-school foes, led by the Washington Education Association (WEA), collected enough signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot.

Opponents yesterday criticized the donations because Fisher and Walton don't live here.

"This is $600,000 coming from outside the state of Washington to influence an issue that the voters have spoken on twice before," said Kelly Evans, campaign manager for Protect Our Public Schools, which wants voters to vote no on Referendum 55.

"If the people in Washington state want charter schools - if that's what the proponents think - where is the funding from people in Washington state?" she asked.

But Steve Mullin, president of the Washington Roundtable, a business group that's part of a pro-charter coalition called Approve Referendum 55, expects to have no trouble raising a significant amount of in-state money. Still, it also is courting help from charter-school supporters across the nation.

In a statement, Fisher said he supports charter schools "because I want to increase public educational options for underserved students as well as to strengthen the overall public-school system."

Jim Spady of Dick's Drive-In Restaurants, who has fought along with his wife, Fawn, to bring charter schools to this state, noted that the first charter-school initiative, on the ballot in 1996, drew significant contributions from the National Education Association, a charter foe that is the parent organization for the WEA.

But Evans said that money could be seen as in-state dollars because it came from teachers union dues.

In this campaign, charter-school opponents have raised $332,056 in cash and in-kind donations, of which $265,985 has come from the WEA, Evans said. The group spent most of that money to pay signature gatherers to help get the referendum on the ballot. Its balance is roughly $36,000, she said.

In addition to the $600,000 from Fisher and Walton, the pro-charter group so far has raised $1,750 in cash and in-kind contributions, of which $1,500 came from the Spadys.

As of the last campaign filing, charter supporters hadn't spent any of that money, but started running television ads this week.

The fight over charter schools has lasted more than a decade in Washington state, with year after year of legislation introduced in Olympia, and two initiatives on the ballot in 1996 and 2000. The 2000 initiative, bankrolled with more than $3 million from billionaire Paul Allen, went down despite the fact that charter-school opponents spent only about $10,000.

Forty states and the District of Columbia allow charter schools, and there are now close to 3,000 across the nation.

But debate continues over whether such privately run, but publicly funded, schools are an improvement over other public schools.

Some, like the KIPP Academies that Fisher supports through its principal-training program, have been success stories. But some charter schools have failed and closed. The two sides both point to studies to back their points of view.

The fact that Walton also has supported voucher efforts across the nation shouldn't raise fears that that's what charter supporters here want, Mullin said. The state's constitution wouldn't allow that, he said.

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