Earlier this month, I reported on the state legislature's passage of a bill that attempts to legalize and fund charter schools, even as the state criminally underfunds its public school system. Now, e-mails between charter school supporters obtained by The Stranger show that the schools immediately turned to Washington's best-known billionaires for millions of dollars in funding after the State Supreme Court outlawed the schools last fall—undercutting claims that without public funding the schools would be forced to shut down.
Governor Jay Inslee has not committed to vetoing the charter school bill, despite Washington Democrats' official opposition to charter schools. And the governor's recent visit to a charter school had raised questions about whether he was poised to flip-flop on the issue.
Inslee must make a decision about the bill by midnight tomorrow, or it will automatically become law. His office still won't say what it plans to do. But spokesperson Jaime Smith did affirm that his position on charter schools is unchanged. "His position is the same," she said. Inslee campaigned against charter schools as a candidate.
The progressive wing of the Democratic party is pressuring Inslee to veto the bill, which would provide $4 million in funding from lottery revenues for charter schools. This week, twenty-three Democratic lawmakers in the House wrote Inslee: "We should not divert scarce public resources to support charter schools when we have not fully funded our public schools. The 1.1 million public school students in every community across Washington state should be our highest priority."
A minority of Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Eric Pettigrew, have allied with Republicans to advocate for charter schools.
Reps. Gerry Pollet and Jessyn Farrell urged a veto in even stronger terms, arguing that the bill is sure to piss off the Washington State Supreme Court, which has held the legislature in contempt for failing to fund public schools since 2012. Signing the bill would provoke the court's ire with "an incendiary fire," they said. The State Supreme Court outlawed charter schools in their current form last September, ruling that public funding of schools without true public oversight violated the state constitution.
While opposing charter schools, Inslee's spokesperson said the governor does not want to "shut down schools." This is a nod to the 1,100 students currently attending charter schools across the state. During the legislative session, charter school backers organized a massive lobbying effort, bussing students to Olympia to plead with lawmakers. Without public funding and reauthorization, the lobbying campaign argued, charter schools would be forced to shut down.
These claims are misleading, new documents show. After the court's ruling, billionaires including The Gates Foundation and Steve Ballmer—all backers of the 2012 charter school initiative—swiftly pledged to kick in millions to support the schools, according to e-mails obtained by education blogger Melissa Westbrook through public disclosure requests and shared with The Stranger.
On September 4, the day of the ruling, Thomas Franta, the Chief Executive Officer of the Washington State Charter Schools Association, wrote in a panicked e-mail: "The Supreme Court just ruled, and it looks bad... very bad."
Two days later, Marco Petruzzi, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Green Dot Schools, wrote back. For now, he said, "I did get an informal 'we got your back' from Gates on Friday night before sending out the email to our staff asking them not to worry about our livelihood. I think they and a bunch of other foundations will come up with the $14 million pretty quickly." Green Dot is a nonprofit that operates charter schools across the country, including Destiny Charter Middle School in Tacoma.
By the end of the week, Petruzzi said he'd been assured by the Gates Foundation's David Bley: "They have officially approved the investment to support Green Dot, Summit, and WA Charters for the rest of the year."
By September 23, Petruzzi was faced with a dilemma over continued taxpayer funding. Marguerite Kondracke, a partner at Social Venture Partners Seattle, said that if the money came through, they should "put it in a reserve account."
Petruzzi replied, "I think we spend the funds, since we have a backstop with Gates."
On September 6, Paul Graves of the powerhouse law firm Perkins Coie wrote in an e-mail to Green Dot: "WA Charters expects $15M funding promises by the end of the week, which should be enough to keep each school open for the rest of the year. PR hit (if you can raise that money so fast why do you need public funds), but obviously for the best."
In the meantime, Graves wrote of standing up a coordinated public relations campaign to push back against the court's ruling. He is on the board of a Kent charter school.
And on September 23, Vulcan executive David Stewart wrote in an e-mail: "[Steve] Ballmer is contributing $5 million... spread across bridging local charter schools, advocacy, and support. Nick Hanauer, Eli Broad and Alice Walton [heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune] are also likely to make significant contributions."
In a statement today, the Washington State Charter Schools Association said it's "grateful that in a time of crisis philanthropists recognized that the most important factor was minimizing the disruption and harm to students caused partway into the school year as a result of the state Supreme Court decision which threw students and families into limbo."
Green Dot did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Inslee may be worried about these deep-pocketed power players giving their money to his opponent, Republican Bill Bryant, in the upcoming election for governor, if he vetoes the charter school bill.
Still, in Westbrook's view, approving charter schools would be "political suicide," because Inslee campaigned against charter schools. Inslee's campaign has been sending out frantic e-mails over the past week, calling on supporters to meet fundraising goals so that he can overcome conservative opposition. "You’ve never stopped supporting me while we work towards building a better Washington—a Washington where every child has a great education," one of the e-mails said.
This story has been updated since its original publication.