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What Happened to Public Education on Election Night?

The rescue of public education must come from the grassroots, from a coalition led by parents and teachers.

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South Dakota: In a veto referendum, voters defeated Referred Law 16 (67.23 to 32.77 percent), a reform package that shifted power from local school boards to the state, phased out continuing contracts and job protections for teachers, and mandated a statewide evaluation system and merit bonuses, both based largely on student test scores. The bill—some twenty-five pages long and, critics said, cobbled together—was unfunded when lawmakers passed it. The South Dakota Education Association led the campaign to put the law on the ballot and defeat it.

Washington: Voters approved Initiative 1240 (50.73 to 49.27 percent), which will allow up to forty charter schools to open in the next five years. Until the vote, Washington was one of only nine states not to permit charters (the other eight are Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia). Two aspects of this referendum stand out. First, Washingtonians defeated charter schools in three previous votes: 1996, 2000, and 2004. Second, charter proponents had to raise $10.9 million dollars this time to eek out their 1.5 percent win. Donors included some of the usual ed-reform hawkers: Bill Gates ($3 million), Alice Walton ($1.7 million), and Eli Broad ($200,000). Other top backers were Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen ($1.6), Jackie and Mike Bezos (parents of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, $1 million), Seattle-based venture capitalist Nick Hanauer ($1 million), and Connie Ballmer (wife of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, $500,000). Opponents of the initiative raised $708,871, just one-fifteenth of the winners’ total. Bill Gates also contributed $1 million to the signature drive to put the initiative on the ballot. Spending about $2.1 million and paying workers nearly $6 per signature, charter patrons amassed about 350,000 signatures in eighteen days.

The controversy in Washington might continue because State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn is considering a legal challenge. The Constitution requires all public schools to be under his department’s jurisdiction, but charter schools, which are defined in the initiative as public schools, will be under the authority of a government-appointed commission. Dorn—a former teacher, principal, and executive director of the Public School Employees of Washington (SEIU Local 1948)—was elected to a second term as superintendent the same night that the charter school initiative squeaked through. He ran unopposed. The struggle for and against corporate-style ed reform is a complex tale.

*Note: All the results reported here are final figures or the latest available as of November 19, 2012.

Joanne Barkan’s articles on philanthropy, private foundations, public education reform, and other topics can be found here.