- Martin Luther King, Jr.
A central theme in McKenna’s comments is refuting the notion of a conspiracy behind Washington’s charter school movement. That’s a classic debating technique, to reframe your opponent’s position to one that’s more easily attacked. Rather than promoting a conspiracy theory, I merely posed a question about the motive behind the huge investments in support of the initiative and the subsequent TV ad campaign.
I did share information that was likely new for most readers about the profit motive that might motivate such funding. That wasn’t my central point, however. The larger point, and one that’s still pertinent, is why there appears to be such a lack of critical questioning about the motivation behind all of this funding.
In his rebuttal, McKenna identified several of the key Washington contributors to the I-1240 campaign and suggested that because of their immense wealth, they couldn’t be motivated by the huge profit margins being earned by charter school investors. Fair enough. But should we accept the notion McKenna seems to promote that such philanthropy is purely motivated by an altruistic concern for Washington’s students?
Maybe so, but according to Public Disclosure Commission records, of the $11.4 million donations by Initiative 1240 supporters, $1.7 million or 15% came from the Walton family. It doesn’t take much research to know that the Walton family has often pushed a political agenda with their donations. It’s also worth noting that nearly $2.8 million or 24% of the funding came from outside Washington, and some of that was from the type of charter school investors highlighted in my previous article.
Even if these huge donations are purely motivated by a desire to better serve our students, is it OK for a few wealthy individuals to effectively buy democracy in our state to promote their ideas? For all of his brilliance and generosity, Bill Gates’s experiment of pushing small high schools as an education reform is widely viewed as a failure. Would it have been OK for him to have used his wealth to mandate that approach through a citizen initiative rather than promoting it through grants?
Some may question my comment about buying democracy, but the following data certainly supports that concern. It provides the totals for pro and con funding for all four of Washington’s charter school ballot measures:
Prior to the I-1240 vote in 2012, the charter school proponents had outspent the opponents by a factor of nearly 3.5 to one. Even with that funding disparity, the net vote margin for the three elections was 1.5 million, or 16 percentage points against bringing charter schools to Washington. Rather than assuming Washington voters truly opposed charter schools, it appears the proponents decided that they just needed to flood the airwaves with more ads purchased by an enormous increase in funding. In 2012, the yes campaign on I-1240 outspent the no campaign by nearly 16 times. With that massive funding differential, the proponents were able to get the yes vote they wanted, but only by a paltry margin of 41,682 votes out of a total of over three million cast.
The funding comparison in Figure 1 is even more interesting if one calculates what was spent per vote in these elections. That calculation is shown in Figure 2.
Given this information, I’m curious if it has become routine with such initiatives to calculate what it will cost per vote to tip an initiative result in a particular direction. In other words, what does it take to buy an election?
Following the State Supreme Court decision, the funding onslaught has continued. In addition to the huge TV ad campaign pointed out in my December 10 article, the Washington Charter Schools Association recently formed a political action committee and plans to raise a half million dollars to influence legislative efforts to overcome the recent court ruling. According to Thomas Franta, CEO of the association, “We know we will have more champions to thank after the session …”
So the proponents are willing to pay vast sums of money, about $20 million in four elections, to bring charter schools to Washington State. And when that effort is overturned as unconstitutional, they throw in even more money to get the result they want in the Legislature. McKenna may truly believe the motivation for that funding is purely altruistic. That’s his prerogative. But for me, the evidence leads to a different conclusion.