Charter School Funders Don't Always Get Their Way. Just Ask Bill Gates

In 2012, Washington state voters narrowly approved a referendum to allow charter schools in that state. Nearly three years later, that state's charter schools face an uncertain future following the recent court ruling declaring that charter schools violate the state constitution. It also represents a setback for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has put its considerable financial muscle behind growing and supporting the charter school movement in its home state.

As a new school year gets underway, the Washington Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that charter schools are not "common schools" as defined in the state constitution because their governing boards are appointed rather than elected. The lack of elected governing boards means these schools are not subject to control by local voters and thus cannot be considered common schools, wrote Chief Justice Barbara Madsen in the court's decision.

Only one charter school had opened in Seattle, but eight new campuses were scheduled to open across the state for this school year, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal. Cities in which the new schools would open included Tacoma and Spokane. The high court's decision did not specify what will happen to the schools or the students who had enrolled in them.

The decision does, however, represent a setback for the Gates Foundation, which enthusiastically funded charter organizations in Washington following passage in 2012 of the new charter law. The proposal, known as Initiative 1240, was supported by a number of pro-charter school philanthropists. Gates himself put $3 million behind the pro-1240 effort. Other supporters included Walmart heiress Alice Walton, who serves on the board of the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation; Seattle entrepreneur Nicolas J. Hanauer; and Jackie and Mike Bezos, the parents of founder Jeff Bezos.

Since passage of Initiative 1240, the Gates Foundation has put more than $10 million into supporting a charter school infrastructure in its home state. The Washington State Charter School Association alone has received more than $6 million from the funder since 2013. Gates put another $4 million toward support of facilities needs for new charter schools.

A coalition of organizations, including the Washington Education Association and the state's League of Women Voters chapter, challenged the charter school law in 2013, saying it improperly diverted public funds to schools that were not subject to voter control.

This successful pushback is one example of a range of efforts in many places aimed at countering deep-pocketed advocates of charter schools and other ed reforms. While teachers unions tend to play a lead role in these efforts, various foundations have been involved in recent years, as we've reported.