Move Over, Koch Brothers: A Bigger, Darker Rightwing Funder

It's "the most powerful organization in America that no one seems to know about."

That's how Scot Ross, executive director of the progressive think tank One Wisconsin Institute, describes the Bradley Foundation.

Unlike David Koch of the Koch Brothers, whose cover was blown when a gonzo blogger named Ian Murphy (editor of the Buffalo Beast and a frequent contributor to The Progressive), impersonated him in a prank call to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

The Milwaukee based Bradley Foundation operates off the mainstream media radar. Yet the group has made more than $530 million in grants and awards since 1985, making it a much, much bigger giver to rightwing causes than the Koch brothers. With more than $290 million in assets, Bradley is one of the biggest foundations in the United States.

A new report by Ross's group One Wisconsin Now reveals the Bradley Foundation's particular focus on privatizing the public schools.

Among the report's findings:

--The Bradley Foundation, headed by Governor Scott Walker's campaign co-chair Michael Grebe, has underwritten a massive, pro-privatization propaganda campaign, including "a systematic and relentless campaign to turn public opinion against the public school system."

--Bradley has spent more than $31 million since 2001 supporting organizations promoting education privatization, academics providing favorable pro-privatization pseudo-science, media personalities promoting the privatization agenda, and lobbying organizations advocating for privatization legislation.

--The Bradley-financed campaign has manufactured an education "crisis," proposed a "solution," attacked and undermined the ability of potential opponents to block their agenda, and funded aggressive pro-privatization media and lobbying efforts.

--The Bradley-financed Wisconsin Policy Research Institute has manipulated research and pressured a University of Wisconsin professor to downplay results that show school vouchers in a negative light, while highlighting scientifically dubious favorable results.

Way back in 1990, Bradley backed the first private-school voucher program in the nation, right in Milwaukee.

This year, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker plans to expand the voucher program to nine new counties, despite test results that show voucher students underperform compared with their public school peers.

Across the country, Bradley has given money to groups like Americans for Prosperity to tout school vouchers and other privatization efforts as an answer to "failing" public schools.

"Their financing is the cornerstone for the privatization of public schools not just in Wisconsin, but across America," Ross explains.

Ross calls the interlocking efforts of Bradley and other groups "a tax-deductible SuperPAC." The groups that have received funds from Bradley include the MacIver Institute, the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity, the Manhattan Institute, and rightwing pundits including George Will, a member of the Bradley Foundation board of directors and recipient of a $250,000 Bradley "outstanding achievement" cash prize.

The free-market mission of the Bradley Foundation fits in nicely with a national rightwing pro-privatization agenda.

"We've seen this influx of out-of-state corporate money into Wisconsin," says Ross, who was active in the effort to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. "Here we have this homegrown foundation pouring more money into the rightwing foundation network than probably any other entity in America."

Those close ties between the Wisconsin-based Bradley Foundation and the national rightwing network have had a helped turn Wisconsin, despite its progressive history, into an incubator for rightwing politics nationally.

Bradley CEO Michael Grebe was not only Scott Walker's campaign co-chair, Ross points out, "he's the person Paul Ryan calls his 'political godfather,' and the guy who sent the letter to the Republican Party saying Reince Priebus should be the next RNC chair."

Can a Scott Walker Presidential campaign be far behind?

Many bad rightwing ideas can be traced back to Bradley.

In a previous report, One Wisconsin Now found that Bradley financed voter suppression efforts back in 2010, including billboards in Wisconsin warning people of criminal penalties for voters who turned out to be ineligible to cast ballots.

School privatization is, arguably, the biggest, baddest rightwing idea sweeping the nation at the moment.

In Wisconsin, which has historically boasted excellent public schools, Walker's current budget calls for a huge funding increase to expand the private school voucher program and independent charter schools free from school-board oversight.

"To understand the scope of the raid on public education," the One Wisconsin Now report points out, "consider that the total funding for private school vouchers, charter and virtual schools will have increased over $150 million" between the introduction of Walker's first budget two years ago and the current one.

"Meanwhile, over the same two budgets, total state and local revenue available to fund public K-12 schools will have been reduced by well over $1 billion."

All across the country, similar legislative efforts to transfer tax money from public to private schools threaten the very idea of public education.

The more the public understands this coordinated, ideologically driven attack, the better armed they are to defend their local public schools.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Progressives Say They'll Primary Dems Who Vote for Chained CPI."

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter