By Barbara J. Miner
Two powerful school voucher groups that ordinarily work behind the scenes have made headlines and raised eyebrows in Milwaukee in recent weeks: The American Federation for Children and School Choice Wisconsin.
The American Federation for Children is a national school voucher group led by prominent Republicans. Yet it is promoting Democratic pro-voucher candidates in several Milwaukee races, touting the candidates’ anti-Republican Party bona fides in order to win over voters in Democratic strongholds.
School Choice Wisconsin, meanwhile, opposes a City of Milwaukee ordinance requiring playgrounds at new elementary schools, including private voucher schools. Such a measure would “significantly limit parent’s educational choices” and would “restrict education reform,” School Choice Wisconsin argued.
The American Federation for Children’s activities have raised the most eyebrows, because of the subterfuge in its efforts. The federation is a well-known and long-time Republican powerbroker. Because there are no Republicans in the Milwaukee races in question, the Aug. 14 primary is in part a battle between candidates supporting vouchers for private schools versus candidates focused on public education.
In one of many testimonies to the federation’s Republican Party ties, in May 2011 it invited Gov. Scott Walker to deliver a keynote address on school vouchers at its national policy summit in Washington, D.C.
However, in a recent mailer, the federation praised the anti-Republican positions of Rep. Jason Fields. A strong supporter of vouchers, Fields is facing a challenge in the11th District assembly race from Mandela Barnes, who supports public education.
The federation also sent out a flyer supporting candidate Mildred “Millie” Colby in the redistricted 10th District assembly race where State Rep. Sandy Pasch is Colby’s main opponent. Like Barnes, Pasch has been critical of school vouchers.
In addition to the campaign flyer for Colby, the federation paid for a “robocall” criticizing Pasch as a Whitefish Bay resident who does not support the interests of African-Americans. Colby is African American, Pasch is white, and the race has become embroiled in politics of whether one should “vote for someone who looks like you.”
The federation has also filed notice with the Government Accountability Board of its involvement in State Rep. Elizabeth Coggs’s upcoming primary race for the Senate seat now held by her cousin, Spencer Coggs, who was elected City of Milwaukee treasurer in April. Coggs faces a primary where current County Supervisor Nikiya Harris is considered her strongest opponent.
Barnes, Pasch and Harris held a joint press conference last week criticizing the federation’s involvement in their Democratic primaries and noting the federation’s conservative agenda. They held the press conference in front of a former voucher school closed down after concerns that the school “put students in danger and was so understaffed in May that the school leader took children to his home while he worked on ‘other things,’” as a May 29 article on jsonline.com described the situation.
THE AMERICAN FEDERATION FOR CHILDREN
The American Federation for Children is the most powerful national group in the Republican-dominated movement to use public tax dollars to fund private and religious schools. Wisconsin, home to the country’s largest and oldest voucher program, plays an important national role.
The federation had a budget of almost $4 million in 2010, according to its tax forms. It is led by Betsy DeVos, a former chair of the Republican Party of Michigan and the sister of Erik Prince, the leader of Xe, the mercenary outfit formerly known as Blackwater that led the privatization of U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Betsy is married to Dick DeVos, son of billionaire Amway co-founder Richard DeVos. All are long-time supporters of right-wing causes, from school vouchers to initiatives opposing gay marriage and women’s reproductive rights.
“Other than possibly the Koch brothers, few billionaires have a more established place in conservative America than the DeVos clan,” notes a Forbes.com article last year.
Betsy DeVos’s involvement in partisan politics goes back decades. Back in 1997 she wrote an op-ed in which she said her family “is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party.” She went on to say that she had decided “to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point.”
The Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation also provided funding for the Citizens United case upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, which successfully challenged campaign finance reform and allowed unrestricted spending by Super PACs.
The federation has long focused on Wisconsin. Scott Jensen, a long-time Republican operative in the state, is a senior advisor for the federation. [http://www.federationforchildren.org/leadership]
The federation also has a non-profit arm, the Alliance for School Choice. The alliance’s 2010 tax form reported a budget of $3 million. In one of the many examples of the inter-locking nature of voucher/choice organizations, Betsy DeVos is the chair and Jensen is a senior advisor for the alliance.
The federation’s involvement in the Jason Fields race should not come as a surprise. Earlier this year, at a lunch hosted by the American Federation for Children at a symposium of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), Fields was a featured speaker. (Kevin P. Chavous, a senior advisor for the American Federation for Children, is on the BAEO board of directors. BAEO was founded in 2000 by voucher/choice advocate Howard Fuller of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University.)
Fields was also on a panel of “legislative champions” at the federation’s 2012 National Policy Summit in May in Jersey City, N.J. Wisconsin State Senator Lena Taylor also attended the summit, and an interview with her is posted on the federation’s “SchoolChoiceWorks’s channel,” accessible via YouTube. Republican governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana were the summit’s featured speakers.
Scott Jensen, meanwhile, is well known in Wisconsin political circles. He served as a Republican in the Wisconsin assembly from 1992 until 2006, and was indicted and later convicted for having his staff work on campaign issues on state time. (Justice David Prosser — who himself made headlines for his “I felt-the-warmth of her neck” incident with Justice Ann Bradley over a contentious meeting related to Walker’s anti-union legislation — was a character witness for Jensen in his 2006 trial.)
In 2004, after his indictment but before he resigned from the Assembly upon his conviction, Jensen was hired by the Alliance for School Choice to promote school vouchers on a state-by-state level.
Think Progress— a non-partisan liberal blog focusing on investigative journalism — reports that funders for the Alliance for School Choice include DeVos, the Wal Mart Foundation, the Chase Foundation of Virginia, the Charles Koch Foundation, and the powerful Walton Family Foundation (of Wal-Mart fame).
Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which as long been one of the country’s most important supporters of vouchers, has donated some $400,000 to the Alliance for School Choice over the years, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel searchable database on Bradley donations.
The American Federation for Children and Alliance for Choice also have a number of state-allied organizations. In Wisconsin, they include Hispanics for School Choice, the Milwaukee chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and School Choice Wisconsin.
SCHOOL CHOICE WISCONSIN
School Choice Wisconsin, founded in 2004, had a budget of almost $750,00 in 2010, according to its tax forms.
Until a year ago, the organization was headed by Susan Mitchell, a well-known government consultant. Jim Bender is the current head of School Choice Wisconsin. Bender previously had been a lobbyist for the organization and, before that, chief of staff for Assembly Speaker (and current U.S. Senate candidate) Republican Jeff Fitzgerald.
The Board of Directors includes Tim Sheehy, head of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and Margaret Farrow, a former Republican state senator and the lieutenant governor under Gov. Scott McCallum. The Board Chair is Andrew Neumann, son of U.S. Senate Republican hopeful Mark Neumann, and head of the HOPE Christian Schools that are part of the Milwaukee voucher program. Howard Fuller was a director until January 2010.
Since 2004, School Choice Wisconsin has received $1.95 million from the Bradley Foundation, according to the foundation’s annual reports. Like Bradley, School Choice supports universal vouchers that are not limited to poor or middle-income people.
In the press release noting her departure as president, Mitchell praised the Republicans for their 2011 expansion of the private school voucher program. “We thank Governor Walker, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, Senator Alberta Darling, Representative Robin Vos, and our many other legislative allies for expanding a valuable opportunity to more families,” Mitchell said. (While expanding private school vouchers, the Republican-controlled legislature made the deepest cuts ever to public education.)
In Milwaukee, School Choice Wisconsin has had a lower profile, in part because vouchers are a state-funded program.
In a recent foray into city politics, it stumbled when it issued a press release opposing an ordinance requiring playgrounds at new elementary schools. School Choice Wisconsin argued that the ordinance was impractical in an urban area, would limit parent choice and would set back educational reform.
The initiative had unanimously passed the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee. School Choice Wisconsin then called on the Common Council to pause and reconsider the initiative.
The council agreed 14-1 at its July meeting to hold the matter, which was clearly a victory for School Choice Wisconsin. At the same time, several aldermen voiced concerns over School Choice Wisconsin’s perspective, with Alderman Michael Murphy calling its views “embarrassing.”
To date, both School Choice Wisconsin and the American Federation for Children have enjoyed significant success in Wisconsin — with the voucher program now rivaling, in size, the state’s largest public school districts after Milwaukee and Madison.
Both groups have relied on the seductive rhetoric of “parental choice” to mask an agenda that seeks to privatize public education and funnel taxpayer dollars to private and religious schools.
Whether their tactics will be successful in these latest battles remains to be seen. At the very least, it has led to scrutiny of the groups’ goals and their ties with powerful conservatives.
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This blog is cross-posted at my blog, “View from the Heartland: Honoring the Wisconsin tradition of common decency and progressive politics.” At the blog, www.barbarajminer.blogspot.com/, you can also sign up for email notifications.