Political education

Very quietly, multibillionaire Paul Allen is buying another statewide election.

Allen, you'll remember, found himself in 1997 with the need to go to the polls for public financing of a football stadium. Faced with a bit of unpopular corporate welfare, Allen came up with a unique approach to getting his way in the electoral arena: He threw so much money at the proposition—some $12 million, over a hundred times the bankroll of the opposition—that there was no way he could lose.

Still, he almost did lose, and so for his second foray into electioneering he has chosen an issue with no organized opposition. Yet. I-729, the charter schools initiative, has been largely financed thus far by Allen and his family, with a pledge of an additional $2 million coming last month.

There are no spending or contribution limits in initiative campaigns, and one gets the sense that Allen is willing to spend as much money as it takes—it is, after all, nearly meaningless sums of money in the context of his stupefying wealth. Two million is about 1/20,000th of Allen's net worth—the equivalent of a candy bar if you're poor, a dinner out if you're comfortably middle class. It is, in other words, nothing.

Like the stadium campaign, Allen has chosen an issue for which he potentially stands to make his investment back. Allen has large financial interest in two education-related companies, including Edison Schools, which runs private charter schools. He has invested in about a half-dozen other education companies.

His spokespeople claim that Edison and the other properties are a minor part of Allen's portfolio and simply reflect his ongoing interest in education, as with his contributions to I-729. But the same thing could have been said about the football stadium campaign and Allen's ongoing interest in sports—a deal on which Allen made millions from the increased value of the Seahawks football franchise as soon as the initiative passed.

The problem with this is no reflection on the desirability of charter schools—I'll get back to that in a minute. The problem is that unlimited spending gives a person with the ability and inclination to spend it an inordinate advantage. In this state, we have two people with unlimited ability, but only one, Allen, who has chosen to throw public elections his way. Allen still has to win the election, but his odds are overwhelming given extensive mailings and television ads with virtually no ability by opponents to reply. It's a slap in the face to democracy. One dollar, one vote is a lousy system when one side has personal interest and unlimited dollars.

In this case, the charter schools initiative will need Allen's money. I-729 is not polling particularly well; a poll in July by Stuart Elway of all the state's initiatives gave I-729 the second-lowest ranking among all of them, with only 47 percent supporting the initiative compared to 41 percent against. Initiatives tend to do well in the polls early on, before opponents have had a chance to get their message out; the statistical dead heat for I-729, prior to the existence of any organized opposition, would ordinarily mean the initiative is in trouble. But with Allen's money, any opponents will have a much harder task.

Charters steal the best

Thirty-six states have some form of charter schools, and I-729 is a relatively mild proposal, less radical than the charter schools initiative that failed (without Allen's support) in 1996. Under I-729, up to 80 charter schools would be allowed in the state in the next four years, with the stipulation that the schools be sponsored by school districts or state universities. They would be operated by nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors.

Proponents of charter schools claim that they offer a much better education, and within the public school system they're theoretically available to any public school student. In other states, charter advocates have been an odd mixture of Christian parents, parents who can't afford private schools or don't have the time or expertise for home schooling, and inner city parents who want to escape decaying big city school districts.

The problem, in Washington and elsewhere, is that they drain the best students, the most innovative teachers, the most involved parents, and needed money away from the regular public school system.

I-729 is a cautious step in the right direction. But Allen's involvement raises a couple of red flags. First, the stipulation that charter schools be publicly run can be overturned by this year's probable Republican legislature in Olympia—as easily, say, as a state legislature can ignore the public will in financing a stadium when a really rich guy, who can break political careers, wants it. Currently, Allen's Edison Schools can't profit from I- 729, but that could easily change.

Second, one has to wonder how many textbooks could be bought and how many peeling ceilings could be repainted in places like Rainier Valley or Hilltop with the money that Allen is pouring into this campaign. If he really wants to support public education for those not being currently well-served by the system, there are plenty of school districts, including Seattle's, that desperately need an infusion of money dedicated to infrastructure.

The advantage of charter schools is that they provide an end run around top-heavy public school administrations. The disadvantage is that for parents who can't send their kids across town to the special school, there's no money left over for their needs.

And, of course, with Allen (and his buddy in Medina, too) the danger is that the cruel and expensive hoax of wiring classrooms for computer learning is all too easy a money suck having nothing to do with improving a child's education.

Charter schools can also be seen as a step toward Allen's dream of remote-control education by terminals—a dangerous trend that leads to ignorant and antisocial students. But that's a rant for another time. For the moment, it's enough to note that a man who apparently can't ever get enough—money or power—is buying another statewide election.

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