1040 web

If only they had channeled all of the money represented above into our public schools in Seattle rather than into financing the corporate takeover of our educational system, we would have full time librarians, nurses, career counselors, enough teaching assistants to handle the increased load of data collection that is to occur as well as alleviate our crowded classrooms. There would be field trips, after school enrichment programs in all of our schools, books, fully equipped science labs, a well rounded after school sports program, civics classes, sewing classes, cooking classes (remember those?), drama, art in art rooms rather than art on a cart…the list continues and I know there are parents reading this post who can add other programs and resources that we have lost over the years due to a lack of adequate funding of our schools.

Now the venture/vulture capitalists, and anyone who wants to make an easy buck, are swarming our state. First these corporateers (new word) suck us dry by refusing to pay a state income tax  and companies like Boeing receive unbelievable tax breaks through the extortion tactic of threatening to leave our state, cripple the unions and then turn around and “invest”, with a minor percentage of their earnings, in political campaigns, clearing the way for the privatization of our schools through charter schools, Common Core lesson plans, textbooks, lots of tests and of course, computers with all of the software that is needed for a child in preschool to take a test to make sure they can move on to kindergarten. All of this is what they think is best for the rest of us if they care at all. They do expect a return on their investment, as Eli Broad has stated before, and they have full intentions of getting it, not through the satisfaction of knowing that our children will receive a well rounded education with an ability to think in a creative and critical manner. No, that’s for students in private schools, for their kids. What they will receive in return are millions of dollars from the United States Department of Education through hefty grants and our taxes for tests, test analysis, data collection, lessons, computer software, online course with one teacher managing 40 to 50 students and highly paid CEO’s of charter schools (they used to be called school principals).

Our children are their guinea pigs with personal information being collected on them from preschool to well beyond high school…and we’re paying for it.

Our own Wayne Au and Joseph Ferrare recently published a study titled Sponsors of Policy: A Network Analysis of Wealthy Elites, their Affiliated Philanthropies, and Charter School Reform in Washington State.

To follow are excerpts from the article that was published in Teachers College Record.

Sponsors of Policy: A Network Analysis of Wealthy Elites, their Affiliated Philanthropies, and Charter School Reform in Washington State.


To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, today’s plutocrats are not like you and I; nor do they resemble the politicians we elect. Even when they assume the authority to set public policies, they are, I fear, not sackable. (Bosworth, 2011, p. 386)

With the backing of both major political parties, billionaire philanthropists, venture capitalists, business leaders, and a growing network of nonprofit organizations and research centers, charter school policy has evolved into a major component of the current education reform movement in the United States (Fabricant & Fine, 2012; Rawls, 2013). As of 2012, all but nine U.S. states allowed charter schools (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 2013), and in one of those nine, Washington State, charter school legislation was passed by popular vote in November 2012 (Reed, 2012).

Washington State has a substantive and unique history with regard to charter school reform. The state allows for popular votes on whether or not various initiatives, measures, or referenda (put on the ballot by petition) become law; since 1996, there have been four opportunities for voters to decide if charter schools would be allowed in the state. Washington State voters have affirmed opposition to charter schools three times: In 1996, 54% opposed charters; in 2000, 51.8% opposed charters; and in 2004, 58.3% opposed charters (Corcoran & Stoddard, 2011). In the November 2012 election, however, voters in Washington approved Initiative 1240 (I-1240) by 50.69%, or 41,682 votes (Reed, 2012), legalizing charter schools in the state.

Given that charter school policy in Washington State has been decided by popular vote, the Yes On 1240 WA Coalition for Public Charter Schools’ (hereafter, Yes On 1240) campaign provided an opportunity to understand the influence of a specific collection of policy actors on the adoption of state-level education policy. The Yes On 1240 campaign played a role in the passage of I-1240 as the campaign directed its resources in an attempt to shift the public, political discourse in favor of the passage of the charter school initiative in Washington State. Indeed, the important role of the Yes On 1240 campaign is highlighted by the fact that, as of election day, November 6, 2012, the campaign had received $10.9 million in donations (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012a), at the time making it the third largest amount spent on an initiative campaign in state history (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012d). Thus, the campaign to legalize charter schools by popular vote in Washington State provided a unique opportunity to gain insight into the significant relationships between policy actors and state-level education policy adoption.


Functionally, the immediate origins of I-1240 can be traced to January 2012, when two companion charter school bills were introduced into the Washington State house and senate (Rosenthal, 2012). Among other details, these bills set a specific number of charter schools to be authorized over 5 years, established three charter school authorizers, established “transformational zone districts” allowing for state takeover of low-performing schools, and included a parent–teacher charter conversion trigger that would allow a majority of teachers or parents to petition to convert an existing public school into a charter school (Westbrook, 2012). Under state Democratic leadership, these bills were killed in committee, a move that provoked severe criticism from the local media (Seattle Times Editorial Board, 2012).

After the original bills were killed in the Washington State legislature, charter advocates then drafted I-1240, which was filed with the state by the League of Education Voters (LEV) chief of staff, Tania de Sa Campos (League of Education Voters, 2012; Sa Campos, 2012). Similar to the legislative bills introduced earlier in 2012, I-1240 contained provisions to establish 40 charter schools over 5 years, establish two charter authorizers (local school boards or an appointed state-level charter school commission), set up appointed charter school boards for charter oversight, and allow a parent–teacher charter conversion trigger, among other details (Sa Campos, 2012). With $2.26 million in donations—mostly from Bill Gates Jr., Amazon.com’s Bezos family, venture capitalist Nick Hanauer (also a LEV board member), and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen— enough signatures were collected by paid signature gatherers to successfully put I-1240 on the Fall 2012 Washington ballot (Callaghan, 2012).

I-1240 supporters Stand for Children™, LEV, Partnership for Learning, and Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) came together to cofound and coordinate Washington Coalition for Public Charter Schools (Washington Coalition for Public Charter Schools, 2012a), taking public responsibility for directing the Yes On 1240 campaign (Washington Coalition for Public Charter Schools, 2012b), as evidenced by their providing in-kind donations to the campaign (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012c). As such, these organizations provided leadership in coordinating every aspect of the campaign—managing financial activities; on-the-ground field organization; press releases; TV, web, and radio advertising; messaging; and making public presentations, among other activities (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012b). As of election day, November 6, 2012, the Yes On 1240 campaign had received $10.9 million in donations (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012a). At the time of the election, the $10.9 million spent to support charter school reform via the Yes On 1240 campaign represents the third largest amount spent on an initiative campaign in Washington State history (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012d). The Yes On 1240 campaign used these millions for phone banks, direct mail, on-the-ground field organization, and signs, and they were able to devote over $5 million specifically for web, radio, and television advertising (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012b).

Leading up to election day, Partnership for Learning (2012), in conjunction with researchers from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), published their report, Examining Charters: How Public Charter Schools Can Work in Washington State (Lake, Gross, & Maas, 2012), which made several explicit references to I-1240 as a good charter school law. Further, CRPE founder and charter school advocate, Paul Hill, was prominently featured in a Yes On 1240 television advertisement advocating for the passage of I-1240 (Yes On 1240, 2012b). In November 2012, citizens of Washington State voted to approve I-1240 by 50.69%, or 41,682 votes out of just over 3,020,000 total cast (Reed, 2012).


In this section we present the findings of our network analysis in two phases. First, through two tables, we present data on cash and in-kind contributions to the Yes On 1240 campaign and funding relationships between campaign donors, affiliated philanthropies, and organizational campaign supporters (Tables 1 and 2). Second, we visualize these relationships through a simple directed graph that traces the flows of sponsorship (material and symbolic) among policy actors (Figure 1).


 Several important findings arise when we analyze the contributions to the Yes On 1240 campaign.

Table 1: Yes On I-1240 Campaign Cash and In-kind Contributions of $50k and More

Yes On 1240 Donor

Donation Amount


Bill Gates Jr. – Microsoft cofounder and current chairman



Alice Walton – heiress; daughter of Walmart founder, Sam Walton



Vulcan Inc. – founded by Paul Allen, Microsoft cofounder



Nicolas Hanauer – venture capitalist



Mike Bezos – father of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos



Jackie Bezos – mother of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos



Connie Ballmer – wife of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer



Anne Dinning – managing director D.E. Shaw Investments



Michael Wolf – Yahoo! Inc. board of directors



Katherine Binder – EMFCO Holdings chairwoman



Eli Broad – real estate mogul



Benjamin Slivka – formerly Microsoft; DreamBox Learning cofounder



Reed Hastings – Netflix cofounder and CEO



Microsoft Corporation



Gabe Newell – formerly Microsoft; Valve Corporation cofounder



Doris Fisher – Gap Inc. cofounder



Kemper Holdings LLC – local Puget Sound developer



CSG Channels



Education Reform Now



Bruce McCaw –McCaw Cellular founder



Jolene McCaw – spouse of Bruce McCaw


Source: Washington State Public Disclosure Commission (2012a)

Table 1 highlights that $10.65 million in total, or almost 98% of the $10.9 million raised for the Yes On 1240 campaign, was funded by 21 individuals and organizations who each donated more than $50,000 to the campaign (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012a).

Notably, Bill Gates Jr. is the biggest contributor ($3M) to the campaign, nearly doubling the next biggest contributions coming from Walmart heiress Alice Walton ($1.7M) and Vulcan Inc. ($1.6M),2 Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen’s company. As a more general finding, these amounts indicate that a number of select wealthy individuals with no immediate connection to Washington State (e.g., Eli Broad and Alice Walton) demonstrated a vested interest in charter school policy in the state. Another finding that emerges from the data is that wealthy individuals who are connected to the technology sector also demonstrated a vested interest in promoting charter school policy in Washington State (12 of the top 21 contributors to Yes On 1240 are strongly connected to the technology sector). Additionally, as might be expected given the interconnectedness of any sector of industry, several of these individuals have historical and industry-related connections to Microsoft Inc. and Microsoft Inc. cofounder and chairman, Bill Gates Jr.

It is also of value to highlight the $50,000.00 donation to the Yes On 1240 campaign from Education Reform Now Advocacy Committee because it illustrates the tightly woven interconnectedness of organizations and funding structures associated with education policy reform advocacy. New York State tax records from 2006 explicitly indicate that Education Reform Now, Inc., Education Reform Now Advocacy Committee, and DFER all share officers, personnel, office space, and paymasters (Libby, 2012). Tax records from 2007 further indicate that Education Reform Now Inc. and Education Reform Now Advocacy Committee share these same resources (New York State Office of the Attorney General, 2013). Thus, it is difficult to determine where DFER, Education Reform Now Inc., and Education Reform Now Advocacy Committee begin and end individually because, in essence, they represent a financially intertwined cluster of three organizations that seem to operate as a single organization with overlapping staff and resources. Consequently, even though tax records do not allow us to fully understand the exact relationship, the $50,000.00 donation to the Yes On 1240 campaign from Education Reform Now Advocacy Committee is functionally also a donation from Education Reform Now Inc. and DFER.


As discussed above, four organizations, LEV, DFER, Stand for Children, and Partnership for Learning, publicly claimed credit for leading and coordinating the Yes On 1240 WA Coalition for Public Charter Schools (Yes On 1240, 2012a). An analysis of the in-kind donations to the Yes On 1240 campaign (that is, donations of labor or other services that are given cash value and added to the campaign donation total) supports this claim: Those four organizations predominate the in-kind donations database and are the only organizations listing “staff time” as donated in kind to the campaign (Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, 2012c). Further, as a university-based research center, they cannot be listed as having provided in-kind donations (or any donations) directly to a political campaign in the state. Because of their active role in providing direct, nonmonetary support for the Yes On 1240 campaign vis-à-vis being highlighted prominently in a campaign video (Yes On 1240, 2012b) and authoring a research report explicitly in support of I-1240 (Lake et al., 2012), we have included the CRPE here as a “connected organization” for their symbolic contribution to the campaign through the lending of their expertise.


Cross referencing information gathered from the Google search engine, philanthropy websites, and available tax records (Foundation Center, 2013) produced the following 11 foundations directly connected to major donors to the Yes On 1240 campaign (in alphabetical order): Apex Foundation (formerly the Bruce & Jolene McCaw Foundation), Bezos Family Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Corabelle Lumps Foundation (formerly the Anne Dinning and Michael Wolf Foundation), the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund (connected through the Connie and Steve Ballmer advised Biel Fund),3 Lochland Foundation (Katherine Binder, cofounder, officer, and contributor), The Walton Family Foundation, and Wissner-Slivka Foundation. Using foundation databases, foundation reports, available tax records, organizational websites, and institutional reports, we then looked for whether or not these foundations provided funding to the Yes On 1240 campaign-related organizations.

Table 2: Philanthropic Support for Yes On 1240 Connected Organizations




Center on Reinventing Public Education


Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation


The Walton Family Foundation


The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation

Education Reform Now (Democrats for Education Reform)


The Walton Family Foundation


The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation


Doris & Donald Fisher Fund


Corabelle Lumps Foundation


Bezos Family Foundation

League of Education Voters


Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation


Lochland Foundation


Bezos Family Foundation


Apex Foundation

Partnership for Learning


Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Stand for Children™


Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation


The Walton Family Foundation


Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund


Bezos Family Foundation


Wissner-Slivka Foundation


Lochland Foundation


Apex Foundation

(Sources: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2013; Foundation Center, 2013; Libby, 2012; New York State Office of the Attorney General, 2013; Stand for Children, 2013; University of Washington Bothell Office of Research, 2013; University of Washington Bothell Office of Sponsored Programs, 2013)

As Table 2 indicates, the philanthropic foundations connected to major contributors to the Yes On 1240 campaign provided a range of support directly to three of the four campaign-coordinating organizations and the CRPE: the Apex Foundation’s $1,000.00 contributions to each LEV and Stand for Children were the smallest, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s total contribution of $9,000,000.00 to Stand for Children was the largest. Further, while DFER received no direct philanthropic support, its sister organization Education Reform Now received ample support from campaign-connected philanthropies, and, as detailed above, the overlap of resources between the cluster of Education Reform Now Inc., Education Reform Now Advocacy, and DFER, is very fluid. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the most prominent here, haven given over $27 million total to Yes On 1240 campaign-connected organizations across multiple years, grants, and contracts. The Walton Foundation is second-most prominent, having contributed $6.48 million to campaign-connected organizations, followed by the Broad Foundation at $2.99 million in support for campaign-connected organizations. There is a precipitous drop in total support after these three, potentially indicating smaller amounts of financial support originating from smaller foundations (e.g., Lochland Foundation or the Bezos Family Foundation). Regardless of the amount, foundation support of the organizations directly involved in the Yes On 1240 campaign is indicative of ideological alignment around specific education reforms (in this case, charter schools) between funders and grantees/contractors.

Sponsorship also buys “credit by association” (Brandt, 1998, p. 167) for the sponsors of policy, and this credit by association is a form of symbolic sponsorship. In the present study, the wealthy individuals and affiliated foundations are credited with being a driving force for education reform within specific discourses of creating quality schools for low-income children (see, e.g., Washington Coalition for Public Charter Schools, 2012c). For instance, because the Yes On 1240 campaign was driven mainly through the material sponsorship of local nonprofit community organizations as well as the symbolic sponsorship of a local research center, wealthy individuals and their foundations are credited for being associated with what appears to be a grassroots movement for education change. Thus, instead of appearing to be a campaign largely driven by the material sponsorship of millionaire and billionaire donors and their affiliated philanthropies (which in reality it was), the Yes On 1240 campaign appears to have the symbolic sponsorship of broad-based, grassroots, community support.

However, as Barkan (2012) explained, what appears to be grassroots symbolic sponsorship can actually be coming from “Astroturf” organizations:

 When an outside organization hires and pays for staff and vote solicitors and then “donates” their work to a candidate, the work looks like grassroots organizing but isn’t. It is “[A]stroturfing”—a term the late U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen is believed to have coined in 1985. Astroturfing is political activity designed to appear unsolicited, autonomous, and community-rooted without actually being so. (p. 53) 

By lending their support to the education reform agenda of the philanthropies through their own symbolic sponsorship of I-1240, pro-charter, nonprofit organizations and the educational research center fundamentally aid these wealthy elite and their affiliated foundations in legitimating charter schools within public discourse, and this helps to garner the support for charter schools from various groups within Washington State.

Further, our analysis here finds the symbolic sponsorship provided through credit by association serves the wealthy and their foundations in three concrete ways. First it reflects directly back into the public sphere and contributes to the creation of a public image of goodness and caring for others. Second, the credit by association serves to strengthen the network of sponsorship because the presence of prominent, well-connected, and important business people and philanthropists draws others into the network, thereby solidifying the strength and influence of the network of sponsorship. Third, credit by association is a form of symbolic sponsorship that functionally enables the superwealthy to influence policy through raw financial power, but to do so through the shield provided by the symbolic power offered by foundations and local organizations.


Given the passage of I-1240, our findings and analysis raise serious concerns regarding the disproportionate power of super wealthy individuals and their related philanthropic organizations relative to public education policy and the democratic decision-making process of individual voters. In the case of the most recent Washington State charter school Initiative 1240, it is clear to us that these wealthy individuals wielded an inordinate amount of power well beyond that of the average person in the state of Washington. Further, the power of these wealthy individuals extended largely from their vast resources and not because of any expertise on the subject of public education reform (Bosworth, 2011). As such, the passage of I-1240 in Washington State raises concerns that billionaires and their philanthropies have become what Karier (1972) referred to as a virtual “fourth branch of government” that is able to carry its reform agenda and ideology forward into fully realized education policy through sheer force of material and symbolic sponsorship, but with little public accountability.

The combination of vast wealth and strong influence over education policy creates an economic and political tension because, as Scott (2009) explained, “Wealth that comes largely from favorable public policies is now directed into mostly tax-exempt foundations, where trustees and philanthropists directly shape public policy for the poor, without the public deliberative process that might have been invoked over school reform policies were that money in the public coffers” (p. 128). The latter portion of this point is particularly salient to our findings here, for as Ravitch (2010) reminded us:

These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state. If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office. The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountable power. (p. 200)

Given the disproportionate power outlined in our analysis and network (Figure 1), we are concerned with what appears to be a lack of a mechanism for public accountability for these wealthy individuals, their affiliated philanthropies, and their agenda for education reform.

It is clear that philanthropies have a growing effect on public education policy (Reckhow, 2013), and our paper suggests the need for further study of the formation of state-level education reforms, as well as the study of the increasingly complex relationships among wealthy individuals, their respective philanthropies, and the networks of sponsorship they utilize to influence public education policy at all levels. Our network-analytic approach to examining this issue in Washington State can provide a foundation for additional studies into the ways these networks are altering the landscape of education policy in the United States and beyond. Finally, considering the lack of public accountability for the wealthy individuals and their respective philanthropies influencing public education reform, our paper further suggests the need for a targeted, critical discussion about how to integrate an accountability mechanism through which members of the public can scrutinize the policy agendas of private individuals and organizations that seek to directly intervene in the system of public education.

To read the results of this study in full, go to Teachers College Record.

Posted by Dora Taylor