State education league wields clout

ISSAQUAH — The League of Education Voters’ prospects of getting a $1 billion education tax package passed in November rest largely with people like Kelly Munn.

A mother of three school-age kids, Munn has devoted years to pushing school levies in Issaquah. She joined the league to help organize a successful 2000 state initiative campaign, I-728, to reduce class sizes. Now she’s gearing up for the group’s latest effort.

“I consider this my job,” said Munn, a brisk woman with a determined air. “I’m a community organizer.”

A statewide network of activist parents like Munn and the ability to get big donations from people like Paul Allen make the league perhaps uniquely positioned to pull off the most ambitious education tax package this state has seen.

The measure, Initiative 884, would add a penny to the sales tax to raise money for everything from preschool programs to college scholarships.

“The secret to (the league) is just grass roots and … being willing to put in the time and effort necessary to travel all around the state” to build its base of support, said Dwayne Slate, former associate executive director of the Washington State School Directors’ Association. “It’s like an old-fashioned political campaign.”

Russell Nickel, executive director of the Washington Association of School Business Officials, confers with the league’s Lisa Macfarlane at a recent meeting.
Yet it’s not all about parents with kids in school. The league’s contribution list is a who’s who of wealthy donors, including Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, and Nick Hanauer, a founding investor in It raised more than $1 million for the I-728 campaign and has collected more than $130,000 so far this year for I-884, including $75,000 from Hanauer.

In just a few years, the league has grown from a small school-levy committee in Seattle to one of a handful of organizations in Washington state with the clout to put initiatives on the ballot and get them passed.

The league has much at stake. I-884, if passed, would solidify its position as one of the most influential education groups in the state, backed by a powerful constituency ranging from college students and professors to parents with preschoolers.

A loss, in the eyes of many, could make the league just another special-interest group.

Tough sale?

There already are signs the education-tax initiative will be a tough sale. As activists promote the measure around the state, they’re running into uncertainty among some people who’ve campaigned for education issues in the past.

“Not all communities are in total agreement with (I-884),” said Gregg Scott, a member of the South Kitsap School Board. “We’re concerned that we’re going into a levy year. If this initiative passes or it doesn’t pass, it could be a lose-lose for us.”

Mark Usdane, executive director of the League of Education Voters, makes a pitch to the Issaquah PTA Council about Initiative 884.
Scott said some people in his community are worried that if the initiative passes, voters will think education has enough money and won’t support a new levy. And if the initiative fails, there’s concern it will taint future local levy requests.

“The impression is, ‘Here you are back again asking for money.’ The public doesn’t separate these issues,” Scott said.

The league has less than four months to get the 197,734 valid signatures needed to qualify for the ballot, and seven months until the general election. And it faces opposition by a national anti-tax group, Citizens for a Sound Economy, which recently helped defeat tax proposals in Alabama and Oregon.

Brian Benzel, superintendent of Spokane Public Schools, says the league has the sophistication to pull it off.

“They’re using everything they know from political structures, polling, focus groups and just talking with people,” he said.

Seattle roots

The league was created after the defeat of a Seattle school levy in 1996.

Lisa Macfarlane, who worked on that campaign as a volunteer parent, recalls being so upset when the levy failed that she drove away from a gas pump with the hose still attached.

The lesson was, “You can’t take stuff for granted,” Macfarlane said. “One of the lessons of the levy campaign is that it’s a lot of work. You do need to remind people to vote.”

Macfarlane, a former King County public defender, teamed with George Scarola and launched a grass-roots campaign, which later turned into Schools First, to get a new levy approved.

“We went and found parents and teachers and principals and asked them to raise money and make phone calls and make signs,” Macfarlane said. “We got out 49,000 new voters, people who hadn’t voted the first time.”

Yards signs promoting the levy became ubiquitous in front lawns throughout the city during the campaign. The measure passed.

Since then, Schools First has successfully campaigned for three more school and capital levies, with victories by increasingly large margins. A $500 million package was passed with 78 percent of the vote earlier this year.

It was during the successful 1996 campaign that Schools First organizers started thinking about statewide education funding. A light went on: Why not hook up with school-levy organizers elsewhere in the state Washington to tackle education issues?

“If you call these people up and say, ‘We’re having a meeting in Yakima to talk about school finance,’ they will show up,” said Scarola, who used to head the state House Democratic Campaign Committee, which raises money for legislative races.

“If you’re at all credible, and have any idea for making life better for kids, they’re happy to join in,” he said. “So that’s how we connected with the levy committees around the state.”

In 1999, Macfarlane and other members of Schools First created a statewide political-action committee that eventually turned into the League of Education Voters. Its first project was I-728, which directed state officials to allocate surplus tax dollars to reduce class sizes, among other things.

I-728 was approved by a landslide — 72 percent of votes in 2000, passing in every county in the state. Since then, however, I-728 has been scaled back because of the state’s budget woes. Lawmakers cut the amount schools were supposed to receive when the state’s surplus disappeared following the recession.

Book clubs, baseball games

The league is relying again on the same grass roots to help get I-884 passed.

The power of the network lies in the fact that each school district already has politically active parent groups that have experience raising money, collecting signatures for petitions and putting up campaign signs.

Munn, the chairwoman of a levy committee for the Issaquah school district, says she knows parents involved in the PTA in all 20 of the district’s schools.

“What that means is we’ll distribute these initiative sheets to them and they’ll go to every book club, toddler group, swim meet, baseball game, and be passing them out and hopefully find a couple of other parents who will pass them out,” she said.

“I will ask them to try to get (I-884) endorsed in their own PTA and by doing that, open the conversation.”

Issaquah’s PTA alone has more than 11,000 members. Similar efforts are being replicated across the state as the league travels across the state speaking to parent groups and asking for their help.

“The signatures, the buzz … they (parents) really lie at our core,” said Mark Usdane, the league’s executive director.

It’s the right approach to pass a statewide tax initiative, said Bryan Jones, a political-science professor at the University of Washington.

“The way to do it is to not rely on statewide organizations” to promote the measure, he said. “They aren’t very good. All the labor unions have failed in the last couple of elections to deliver any votes. Teachers can maybe still do it but they’re seen as special interests.”

Having parents promote I-884 helps take the initiative out of the context of a measure being pushed by a special interest, Jones said. “They must be very sophisticated in what they’re doing.”

Even so, the league will face a lot more resistance this time than it did with the class-size initiative because this one has a tax attached.

In Issaquah, Munn thinks the community will support the initiative once it learns more about the measure.

The bottom line for Issaquah, she said, is that I-884 would provide an additional $4.3 million annually to the local schools.

“The phrase I hear all the time is, ‘I’m probably going to support it, but I’m going to hold my nose,’ ” she said.

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or