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Updated Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 06:46 PM

Election 2012 sends mixed signals on education reform

By Brian M. Rosenthal
Seattle Times staff reporter

Washington's so-called education reformers scored a significant victory when voters narrowly approved charter schools last week, but they suffered across-the-board losses in candidate races.

Stand for Children and other groups pushing for more choice in public education spent some $800,000 in independent expenditures supporting Republican gubernatorial hopeful Rob McKenna, a Republican challenger to powerful Senate Education Chairwoman Rosemary McAuliffe and two Democratic legislative candidates.

They all lost to opponents backed by the state teachers union, the Washington Education Association, which also opposed charter schools.

The union funded independent campaigns for 10 candidates, and most of them won — including Democrats McAuliffe and Gov-elect Jay Inslee.

But it lost on Initiative 1240, which authorizes 40 charters statewide over five years. Charter schools are public schools that are independent of traditional districts and sometimes employ nonunion teachers.

"Overall, it's mixed," Jana Carlisle, executive director of Partnership for Learning, said of the election results.

Partnership for Learning is an advocacy group that works with groups like Stand for Children to urge elected officials to implement public-education changes, such as more innovative schools and stricter teacher evaluations.

Carlisle and others said Democratic and union-led get-out-the-vote efforts benefited candidates more aligned with the WEA, while President Obama's support for charters nationally boosted I-1240.

Alison Peters, a Democrat consultant, said candidate races are about many issues and it is difficult for independent groups focused on a single issue like education to sway voters.

But the most important factor in the election may have been priority: While the WEA's top goal was electing Inslee as governor, the education advocacy groups focused more on the charter-schools initiative, which had failed at the ballot box three times before.

The reform groups raised nearly $11 million, mostly from wealthy donors, for the charter-schools campaign. Stand for Children also loaned its executive director, Shannon Campion, to the pro-charter effort full-time.

The WEA put $200,000 into the anti-charter schools campaign.

Asked if the charter win outweighed the candidate losses, Campion laughed.

"This is like, which child do you like more," she said. "I don't know. It's the one we've won and we're thrilled about, and the impact for kids is huge. Voters sent a clear signal here."

Union officials disagreed.

"Voters in our state showed they are committed to our existing public schools," WEA President Mary Lindquist said. "In every case where they had a choice, they voted for candidates who are going to put the students first, not corporate interests."

The union is particularly pleased with the victories by Inslee and McAuliffe, D-Bothell. McAuliffe has used her perch atop the Education Committee to support the union on charter schools, teacher evaluations and other issues.

The WEA ran a $1 million campaign supporting Inslee; Stand for Children spent about $430,000 backing McKenna.

In the state Senate race, the WEA spent some $220,000 on behalf of McAuliffe, while Stand for Children spent about $250,000 backing her opponent, Northshore School Board member Dawn McCravey.

"The McAuliffe race was a tall order, but we almost couldn't not do something," said Chris Korsmo, CEO of the League of Education Voters, which ran smaller independent campaigns for some of the candidates Stand for Children supported. "All bills run through that committee."

Education advocacy groups spent about $50,000 supporting Sylvester Cann, who lost his challenge to fellow Democratic Rep. Gerry Pollet in Seattle's 46th District. Pollet got roughly $30,000 from the WEA.

Stand for Children also spent $27,000 on behalf of Democrat Stephanie Bowman, who didn't make it out of the August primary. Democrat Steve Bergquist won the seat.

In other legislative races, the WEA ran successful independent campaigns supporting former Rep. Dawn Morrell, D-Puyallup, who won her race to return to the House, and the re-elections of Reps. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, and Derek Stanford, D-Bothell, among others.

The union spent $70,000 on behalf of Democratic House hopeful Eric Choiniere, of Tacoma, who lost to Republican Steven O'Ban.

Three contests remain too close to call, including in the 17th District, where Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, is narrowly ahead of labor-backed Rep. Tim Probst, a Democrat.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.


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