By Ruth Conniff on May 14, 2013
A fundamental struggle for democracy is going on behind the scenes in statehouses around the country, as a handful of wealthy individuals and foundations pour money into efforts to privatize the public schools.
The implications are huge. But the school privatizers, and their lobbyists in the states, have so muddied the waters that the public does not get a clear picture of what is at stake.
So it was fascinating when investigative reporter Dan Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ripped the veil off a secretive organization and its hidden political activities by publishing a copy of the American Federation for Children's "2012 Election Impact Report."
The report, which was clearly meant only for members and donors, outlines how the American Federation of Children pours millions of dollars into state races around the country to back candidates who support school vouchers and other measures that siphon public money into private schools.
AFC and its affiliates "spent more than $7 million in 2012 to elect candidates in states across the country," the report declares.
"We engage in elections," the group explains, "because the political process is the first step to enacting meaningful education reform."
In Wisconsin, the state where AFC spent the most money in 2012, the "first step to enacting meaningful educational reform" meant defending Governor Scott Walker in a recall election after his attacks on teacher's unions and his historic $1 billion in cuts to Wisconsin's public schools divided the state. It also meant ensuring Republican control of both houses of the Wisconsin legislature, so that a controversial plan to expand private-school vouchers could go forward around the state.
Among the victories AFC lists in its report is the defeat of Democratic state senator Jessica King, who won a recall election against a state senator who supported Walker. AFC spent $325,000 to replace King with pro-voucher freshman Senator Rick Gudex, helping to return the state senate to Republican hands. Gudex, who barely won, by a margin of 590 votes, has pledged not to vote for any budget that doesn't expand school vouchers.
In #1-ranked Wisconsin, AFC reported total political spending of $2,392,000.
That number is about 7 times higher than what the group reported to elections officials.
The difference landed the American Federation for Children in hot water.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign filed a complaint with state election officials, noting that the group only reported spending $344,500 in 2012 to the state elections board.
"This group tells election officials one thing, but it tells its own members a completely different story," says Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
The difference is the undisclosed money AFC sank into TV ads.
"That's why we filed the complaint," says McCabe, "to shine a light on this hoax perpetuated on the people of Wisconsin, with these phony issue ads."
Those ads, by the way, many of which had nothing to do with the school choice issue, are nowhere to be found on the web now, McCabe points out.
Dark money for TV and radio ads further obscures the school-choice issue. Often, these are ads about taxes or crime, and have nothing to do with their sponsors' actual agenda.
Rules requiring disclosure for spending on issue ads "aren't worth the paper they're written on," McCabe says, because they aren't enforced.
"So this group can tell its members it spent all this money to support candidates and influence elections, and turn around and tell the elections board that it wasn't political spending at all."
That's too bad, because what the American Federation for Children calls education "reform" looks, to a lot of people, like the dismantling of a state's great public school system.
In his current budget, Governor Walker has proposed expanding Wisconsin's school voucher program to nine new school districts around the state.
Spending on vouchers will go up by as much as $1,400 per pupil under the new budget, while the public schools will see a net increase of $0 per pupil increase--a shock to districts who were hoping for a reprieve after last year's devastating cuts.
School boards around the state have been passing resolutions demanding fair funding for their local schools, and objecting to the voucher expansion, which will be a massive drain on local funds, with no local input.
Walker is also pushing two measures originally written by the national, pro-corporate American Legislative Exchange Council: a massive, statewide charter-school authorizing board, which would drain school funds by taking the first draw on state aid to all Wisconsin schools, and special-needs vouchers, which encourage parents of disabled children to take a cash voucher in exchange for giving up their rights to a federally guaranteed free, appropriate public education:
So aggressive are Walker's plans for Wisconsin schools, they have run into heavy opposition from a handful of Republican state senators.
When Walker lifted the cap on the number of kids who could enroll in voucher schools, and proposed expanding vouchers to school districts around the state, these legislators objected that local communities ought to be able to vote on whether they want the vouchers.
The American Federation for Children is working hard to wear those legislators down.
The group's lobbyist in Wisconsin is former Republican assembly speaker Scott Jensen.
Two other former Republican assembly speakers--John Gard and Jeff Fitzgerald--are lobbyists for School Choice Wisconsin.
That gives you a sense of how powerful the school-choice lobby is in the state.
After helping to keep Walker in office, the AFC "invested heavily in the primary and general elections" for Wisconsin state legislators, the group's report explains, "to ensure educational choice majorities in both chambers of the legislature."
Now, as the state budget works its way through the Capitol, they are busy protecting their investment.
If you want to see how truly dishonest the school-choice lobby is about its goals, take a look at AFC's "2012 Election Impact Report" (not findable on the web, except where it's attached as a PDF to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign's elections-board complaint, and to Dan Bice's column.
The smiling faces of African American and Latino children beam from the pages of the report.
Billing itself as "the nation's voice for educational choice," the American Federation for Children pushes forward students of color as the beneficiaries of its lobbying work, but the politicians they support are not exactly heroes of the civil-rights movement.
You'd never guess it from all those smiling black and brown faces that the biggest recipients of AFC funds are Republican state legislators who are busy enacting plans to slash funding for public schools and, at the same time, redirect tax dollars to private-school families--many of whom have kids who've never attended public school.
When former governor of Wisconsin Tommy Thompson started the nation's first private-school voucher program in Milwaukee in 1990 it was, from the beginning, a racially divisive issue.
Vouchers pitted African American parents who wanted to get their kids out of poor schools against the teachers unions, civil libertarians, and public-school advocates who objected to sending tax money to private schools, including religious schools.
But all these years later, vouchers have not proven to be a ticket out for poor kids of color.
Voucher students in Milwaukee have lower test scores in reading and math than their public-school peers,
The ACLU is still concerned that tax dollars are going to teach voucher students that creationism trumps evolution in some voucher-funded religious schools.
Worst of all is the whole budget picture: public schools taking a massive hit, even as the state pours tax dollars into private schools.
When Walker lifted the income cap on vouchers and expanded the program it became clear that this is not a program designed to help a few disadvantaged, minority kids.
The governor expanded Milwaukee's voucher program to the city of Racine last year, and half of all new voucher recipients were students who had never attended public school.
Lutheran and Catholic schools around the state favor vouchers. Their enrollment jumped when Walker eliminated enrollment limits and raised the income cap for vouchers to $67,000 a year (and once a family qualifies for a voucher, no matter how much money the parents make, the kids remain voucher-eligible).
A neighbor of mine, whose kids have always attended Catholic school, got a letter from her school cheerfully touting the voucher expansion because it would give parents at her kids' school a tuition break.
The bottom line: Families that never used the public schools, that are neither poor nor living in a neighborhood with a “failing school,” can get taxpayer dollars to reduce their tuition, even as the public schools are forced to slash programs and keep per-pupil spending flat.
Forget the school privatizers' misleading catch phrase --that school choice is "the civil rights issue of our time."
The real question of the moment is whether we will continue to have public schools, or a pay-as-you-go system that means you get the education you can afford.
This fundamental question is being debated right now in statehouses around the country.
But you have to cut through a lot of misdirection from the school-choice lobby to find that out.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Move Over, Koch Brothers: A Bigger, Darker Rightwing Funder."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter