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Spending ramps up in race for Washington schools chief

One of the largest independent expenditures in Washington state elections this year has come in the race for schools chief. 

The education reform organization Stand for Children's PAC has bought $164,887 worth of mailers for the Erin Jones campaign for Superintendent of Public Instruction. The PAC spent another $12,809 yesterday on last-minute robocalls for Jones's campaign.

On paper, Jones's left-leaning platform appears quite similar to that of her opponent, State Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater. Both say they oppose excessive standardized testing, demand much-improved state funding of K-12 schools, and want creative solutions toward closing the opportunity gap for disadvantaged students.

But Stand for Children spokeswoman Deb Jaquith said Jones is uniquely qualified. "She has some well thought-out positions on the issues. She really has a clear grasp of some of the key problems that our education system has," Jaquith said.

Jones said the mailer buy came as a shock. “I found out about it, actually, on Twitter,” she said. “I had no idea anything was coming, and I could not have imagined that magnitude at all.”

Stand for Children WA PAC is funded almost entirely by just a few players: Connie Ballmer, wife of former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer; Reed Hastings, the California-based founder of Netflix; WA Charter Action PAC, which is itself funded primarily by Connie and Steve Ballmer; and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's company, Vulcan.

Reykdal said that list rubs him the wrong way. "I’m frustrated by it. I hate the idea of billionaires being able to buy seats at any level. And then the particular frustration for me is out-of-state folks," Reykdal said.

Along with deep pocketbooks, the donors to Stand for Children WA PAC share in common a history of supporting charter schools. Hastings, Ballmer and Vulcan were among the largest contributors to the state’s charter school initiative four years ago. The Stand PAC has also given heavily to defeat the state Supreme Court justice Barbara Madsen, who wrote last year’s decision finding that charter law unconstitutional.

Reykdal and Jones both say they're against charter schools. But Reykdal said he suspects that the donors consider Jones more amenable to privately-run, publicly-funded schools, given that Jones spoke in favor of a proposed charter school near Seattle several years ago.

Jones said that's not the case. “For the people that I know who have donated, they don’t support me because they think I’m going to promote charter schools. They support me because they see I’ve done work in communities of color, I’ve done work closing the opportunity gap,” Jones said.

The state legislature passed a new charter school law earlier this year, which faces another legal challenge.

Jones and Reykdal are vying for the seat currently held by Randy Dorn, who’s stepping down after eight years as the state’s top education official.

Year started with KUOW: 2008