BERKELEY, Calif — Both are young. Both struck high-tech gold in Silicon Valley. Both had a dream: reforming education.
But where Ron Unz blazed a high-profile path to ballot victory with passage this month of a measure scrapping bilingual education, less well-known is the story of Reed Hastings, who reshaped education via the quieter route of legislative negotiation.
Like Unz, Hastings had the signatures to get an initiative, in his case dealing with charter schools, on the ballot. But he and a consortium of high-tech entrepreneur supporters dropped the campaign, which would have gone before voters this November, after legislators agreed to make some changes.
“It’s a monumental step for them,” says Paul A. Smith, legislative aide to Assemblyman Ted Lempert, D-Palo Alto, who sponsored the compromise bill. “It’s a monumental step for anyone who’s got an initiative … to walk away.”
Education replaced the economy as the hot-button issue this year — from the bilingual battle over Proposition 227 to gubernatorial hopeful Al Checchi’s promises of education reform — and Hastings thinks a charter schools measure would have coasted to victory on the tide of education frustration.
But he doesn’t regret bypassing the ballot.
“If we win like that you leave a lot of people embittered,” he said. “We were able to get a deal that the California Teachers Association … feel good about.”
Unz, on the other hand, says there wasn’t much room for him on the road to compromise.
“Essentially what we were trying to do was get rid of bilingual education because it didn’t work and the people who support bilingual education wouldn’t accept that,” he said.
He pointed out that a bill that would have made moderate changes to the current system was “fought tooth and nail by the bilingual education industry.”
As Proposition 227 teetered on the brink of landslide approval, lawmakers hurriedly passed the bill, but it was vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson as “too little, and much too late.”
Unz has his critics. Hastings is not among them.
“I don’t think it’s a story of bad millionaire, good millionaire,” he said. “I think it’s a story of a policy that the public vastly supports.”
What makes people like Unz and Hastings willing to pitch their self-made dollars into the political process?
Unz, 36, owner of a Palo Alto-based software company, made his first foray into politics with a 1994 challenge to Gov. Pete Wilson for the GOP nomination.
He was inspired to fight bilingual education after seeing Latino parents boycotting a Los Angeles school for refusing to teach their kids in English.
Hastings, 37, runs an Internet video rental company (Netflix.com). His interest in charter schools stemmed from his dismay over the public education system awaiting his two young children.
He sees charter schools, which allow parents and teachers to work out their own education plan largely free of state restrictions, as a way to improve individual schools and make the rest of the district take notice.
“We can’t save all kids, but we can sure save a lot more than we do today,” Hastings said. “What makes me passionate and probably Ron Unz (as well) is letting more kids have the kind of opportunity that we had as kids.”
He approached the Silicon Valley political consortium TechNet last year and interested them in an initiative campaign.
To get an initiative on the California ballot, sponsors need valid signatures from 5 percent of the voters in the last gubernatorial election, about 433,269. In practical terms, that means turning in about 750,000 signatures.
Sponsors have 150 days from the time their initiative is registered to come up with the signatures.
The charter schools initiative passed those hurdles.
But instead of heading for the airwaves, Hastings and TechNet went to the bargaining table.
Among the compromises: The initiative would have put no limit on the number of schools that could have been started each year; the old law had a limit of 100 with exceptions only available by state board waiver. The Lempert bill allows the cap to grow by 100 per school year, starting with 250 in 1998-99.
Smith says the negotiators gave up a little to gain a lot.
Proposition 227 was dragged into court before the final votes were counted in its 69 percent-31 percent victory.
“You’re not going to see lawsuits on charter schools flooding the courts,” he said.
Outside the initiative arena, well-heeled candidates lost their footing this election.
Democratic gubernatorial candidates Jane Harman and Checchi spent $50 million combined but lost out to $12 million man Lt. Gray Davis. Darryl Issa forked over $10 million to be the GOP nominee for U.S. Senator in vain.
By contrast, Hastings put up about $1 million to get the charter school initiative ballot-ready. Unz gave about $1.2 million to the Proposition 227 effort.
“Millionaires who go into politics as candidates have pretty much fallen on their face in California every single time,” says Jim Shultz, executive director of The Democracy Center, a public affairs group in San Francisco.
“So far (this year) the millionaires are batting zero for four. On the other hand, the millionaires who go into initiative politics are batting a thousand.”