Supporters of allowing charter schools in Washington state have raised nearly $2 million from a handful of high-profile donors and say they are poised to submit the needed 241,153 valid signatures by the Friday deadline.
Sponsors of an initiative to allow charter schools in Washington say they have almost enough signatures to qualify for the ballot — a speedy effort aided by nearly $2 million in donations from a handful of high-profile supporters.
Shannon Campion, a spokeswoman for the initiative, said sponsors plan to submit more than the required 241,153 valid signatures by the Friday deadline, completing the well-funded signature scramble.
Bill Gates has personally donated more than $1 million to the initiative, while fellow Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has kicked in $100,000. Mike and Jackie Bezos, parents of Amazon executive Jeff Bezos, have contributed $450,000.
The money has helped pay professional signature-gatherers who have worked outside grocery stores, farmers markets and community festivals over the past three weeks — a short time frame paralleled recently only by last year's liquor-privatization initiative.
If the signature drive is successful, it would give voters a fourth shot at approving charter schools. Charters are free public schools that operate independently of traditional districts and are allowed to use unconventional techniques and hire nonunion teachers.
In the 41 states where they exist, charters have sometimes outperformed regular schools.
Washington voters rejected them in 1996, 2000 and 2004.
Legislation to approve charters was debated in the Legislature this spring, but never came up for a vote amid concerns about the nonunion employees and diverting money from traditional public schools already strapped for cash.
Supporters of the latest effort, called Initiative 1240, say they think the state is ready to approve charters.
"A lot of people — parents, teachers, a lot of us — share the frustration that the status quo is working for some kids but not for enough," said Campion, executive director of the Washington chapter of Stand for Children, one of several education advocacy groups supporting the initiative. "I think Washington voters share that sense.
"Initiative 1240 would allow 40 charter schools over a five-year period. Only nonprofit organizations approved by the state would be able to run them, and students would be selected by lottery.
Like at other schools, the charters would be funded based on student enrollment and would be subject to annual performance reviews.
Opponents of the initiative have formed a group, People for Our Public Schools, but have not reported raising any money.
The group's treasurer, Philip Lloyd, said opponents are waiting to see if the measure qualifies for the ballot.
The state teachers union plans to oppose the initiative, but it, too, is waiting to form a plan, President Mary Lindquist said.
Still, Lindquist said she expects the initiative to meet its deadline.
"They'll buy enough signatures to get this on the ballot," said Lindquist, who expressed concern at the high number of out-of-state signature-gatherers working for the initiative.
The passion on both sides of the charter-school issue, combined with the speed in which signature-gatherers have worked, has led to some sticky situations, said Lindquist and others.
Lynnwood police were called to a Target store last week after an altercation broke out between a signature-gatherer and a charter-school opponent, police spokesman Jim Nelson said.
Jason Dominguez, a self-described ballot initiative professional from California, said he was getting paid $4 for each signature he obtained. The 31-year-old said he was among about 400 signature-gatherers who came from out of state to work for the initiative.
Campion and other initiative supporters declined to verify those numbers. They also declined to give any information about their fundraising goals, although Campion predicted the initiative would include "a large number of donors at all levels.
"The initiative's current use of wealthy donors — as of Monday evening, the smallest of the seven reported donations was $25,000 from venture capitalist Nick Hanauer — is due to the short time frame supporters have been working under, Campion said.
Asked why sponsors waited so long to file the initiative, Campion said the advocacy groups wanted to get the details right.
"We spent a lot of time really crafting the right initiative," she said.
The short time frame is one of several similarities between Initiative 1240 and Initiative 1183, last year's successful effort to get the state out of the liquor business.
Both initiatives used the same signature-gathering consulting firm, California-based Winner & Mandabach Campaigns, raised a lot of money before getting on the ballot, and worked with spokesman Mark Funk.
Initiative 1183 passed with nearly 59 percent of the vote.
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or JLIB_HTML_CLOAKING . On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.
Source: The Seattle Times