SEATTLE — Helping Democrat Jay Inslee defeat Republican Rob McKenna in the gubernatorial race is a higher priority for the statewide teachers' union this year than whether voters approve public charter schools.
"I think it's pretty clear that we have a real priority in making sure that we get someone elected as governor who will put kids first," said Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association.
The political action committee for the Washington Education Association is one of the top contributors to a group called OUR Washington, which is behind the pro-Inslee TV ad series purporting to show "The Real Rob McKenna."
The WEA PAC has contributed $500,000 of the $5 million raised as of this week for that effort, while the National Education Association has put in another $500,000, according to reports filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission. The political action committee gets its cash from donations by teachers, about a third of whom support the political activities of their union.
That makes the state and national teachers' unions the biggest supporters of those ads after the Democratic Governors Association.
Lindquist said the WEA focused its money on the governor's race -- as well as keeping lawmakers in office who understand the Supreme Court's recent ruling on school spending -- because it believes the main problem facing Washington schools is a lack of a reliable funding source.
"We're not going to be able to close the achievement gap or do anything we know we need to do to improve our schools unless we have good funding," she said.
Although the WEA opposes the charter schools initiative, as it did the last three times the issue came before voters, the governor's race is their top priority, Lindquist said.
The WEA PAC has donated about $174,000 toward a group called People for our Public Schools, which is by far the best financed anti-charter group, with about $250,000 raised so far this year. The National Education Association has yet to put money into the charter schools fight, and the people supporting the initiative have raised more than $4.6 million.
The last time charter schools were on the ballot, the WEA donated just over $600,000 to support the group fighting that initiative, Protect our Public Schools.
The WEA PAC also has spent quite a few dollars from the roughly $1.9 million raised for this election to help lawmakers friendly to their cause get re-elected. The biggest chunk of lawmaker support went to help state Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, in her re-election campaign, including a $30,000 media buy.
The chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee blocked a charter schools proposal when it came before her committee during the 2012 Legislature and has been a loyal supporter of education and teachers throughout her legislative career.
Cash for campaigns isn't really where the WEA shows its political power, Lindquist said.
"We are going to be outspent in this campaign in a huge way. That's a reality," she said, noting that the Republican Governor's Association has put millions into the governor's race.
But Lindquist said the WEA's greatest strength is making phone calls and knocking on doors: "We're in every community in the state."
Teachers are going to be visiting their own neighborhoods to advocate for Inslee, for lawmakers and to talk about why voters should defeat the charter schools initiative, she said.