Voucher Advocate Betsy DeVos, Right-Wing Think Tanks Behind Koch-Style Attack on PA Public Schools
Also see Part Two in this series, a report tracking over $4.6 million dollars contributed to American Federation for Childrens' Indiana PAC in 2010, prior to the election ($5.8 million total in 2010).
A new wave of school voucher bills is sweeping the nation, which would allow public education funds to be used in private or parochial schools. As with past waves of voucher initiatives, these new bills are largely promoted and funded by the billionaire DeVos family and a core group of wealthy pro-privatization supporters. They include Pennsylvania SB-1, soon coming to a vote in the PA Senate, and the "Vouchers-for-All" bill approved by the Florida Senate Education Committee on April 14. Betsy DeVos is at the helm of organizations that have set the stage for both bills, but you would never know it based on the propaganda being marketed to Pennsylvanians. Even if you are from another state, keep reading. Chances are a Betsy DeVos-led campaign is already at work in your state or will be there soon.
"I proclaim publicly that I favor ending government involvement in education."
Years have been spent developing and promoting schemes to privatize public education. The report "Voucher Veneer: the Deeper Agenda to Privatize Public Education" by People For the American Way (PFAW), quotes Joseph Bast, President and CEO of the Koch/Scaife/Walton-funded Heartland Institute,
"The complete privatization of schooling might be desirable, but this objective is politically impossible for the time being. Vouchers are a type of reform that is possible now, and would put us on the path to further privatization."
(Contributions from the DeVos, Scaife and Koch foundations are noted throughout this article, however, other family foundations including Olin, Bradley, Smith Richardson, and Walton - the Walmart heirs, also fund these same think tanks.)
Pennsylvania could be a case study for nationwide anti-public education partnerships, formed by Religious Right activists joining forces with radical free market think tanks and libertarian-minded investment and hedge fund managers. The movement is billed as the salvation of inner city students; and Democratic politicians, often African American, are portrayed as the heroic champions of children who desperately need access to better education. The need is real, but the claim that this about improving public schools is false advertising.
The big money donors who provide millions for orchestrated campaigns and glossy media, and what they expect from their investments, are kept behind the scenes. "Flooding the zone" is the phrase the Democrats for Educational Reform (DFER), partners in the voucher movement, have used to describe the intense media exposure before an important vote or election. In the case of Pennsylvania, the illusion created by "flooding the zone" may have impacted the 2010 gubernatorial election, and could impact the Senate vote expected to take place next week.
Williams is an African American Democratic state senator serving part of the Philadelphia area and was a very long-shot candidate in a large field of Democratic candidates for governor. William finished a distant third and the Democratic nomination was won by Dan Onorato, Allegheny County Executive and a centrist Democrat, who was endorsed by both of the state's public school teachers' unions in the general election. In August, months after the May primary, Williams endorsed Onorato in a public appearance and Onorato, in turn, voiced support for school vouchers for low income students. Expectations were raised that Onorato would have a chance of tapping into the same donor pool that financed Williams' campaign.
The Washington Post reported, via a political consultant, that Onorato later met with the three Williams donors who declined to support Onorato's campaign, despite his embrace of William's voucher scheme. Some of the press coverage claimed the three had become "gun shy" due to the unexpected press exposure. It was reported that the trio of mega-donors said Onorato's position "did not go far enough." It was unlikely that these donors, affiliated with right-wing think tanks, would support Onorato or that he would have embrace their real agenda. Williams, on the other hand, despite liberal stances on some issues, had been working in these circles of voucher supporters for years, forming ties with the interconnected network of the pro-privatization movement. It would have been hard for him not to know that these supporters and the associated think tanks openly advocate ending public education or that Students First is part of Betsy DeVos' privatization crusade.
Who is Betsy DeVos and Why Is She Trying to Privatize Public Schools?
The Prince and Devos families have also funded the Family Research Council, Focus on Family, and the ministries of the late D. James Kennedy, all warriors against separation of church and state. Kennedy did, however, believe in separation of school and state. Like many others who have benefited from Devos and Prince family largesse, he signed the proclamation to end public schools.
"Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system."
The DeVos and Prince families played a major role in bringing together right-wing business leaders and religious conservatives and combining these forces to battle labor unions and federal regulatory policy while promoting conservative social policy. The Right built a parallel universe of think tanks to counter the established institutions deemed to be controlled by liberals. The secretive Council for National Policy was described by ABC in 2002 as the,
"most powerful conservative group you never heard of.""The brightest lights of the hard Right," stated ABC News, meet behind closed doors - invitation only - and with no press. Richard DeVos famously described the CNP as bringing "together the doers with the donors." The expenditure report of Students First PAC shows a $575 dollars for conference registration for the Council for National Policy.
Betsy DeVos, who heads Alliance for School Choice, founded All Children Matter in 2003, American Federation for Children, and American Federation For Children Action Fund, registered in 2010. Alliance for School Choice and American Federation for Children have almost identical board of directors, including Kevin P. Chavous, a former D.C. council member who describes himself as having "helped shepherd" the D.C. and New Orleans charter school programs. DeVos' pro-voucher organizations pump millions of dollars into campaigns around the country, including last minute media blitzes. Advertisements sometimes omit the word "vouchers" but accuse their rivals of opposing equal opportunity education and and not caring about the education of African American students in failing urban schools.
Until recently it appeared that the voucher movement had fizzled. In 2000, both California and Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected voucher schemes despite the DeVos campaigns being advertised as having broad based support. Kids! Yes! First! spearheaded the unsuccessful voucher drive in Michigan in 2000 and raised four million dollars in six months. But of the four million, three million came from the DeVos family, including one million each from Dick DeVos, Betsy Devos, and Betsy's mother, Elsa Prince. The Michigan Catholic diocese contributed $740,000.
Betsy DeVos` organizations have had significant legal problems. All Children Matter was fined 5.2 million dollars for funneling campaign money into Ohio in 2006 through their various state networks and lost its legal appeal in February 2010. Misconduct has been reported in several states, including a case in Wisconsin that resulted in a fine.
Following these legal troubles, All Children Matter disappeared and a new entity emerged under the name American Federation for Children. This new DeVos-led organization has affiliate groups in several states and its board of directors includes Chavous, John F. Kirtley, Boykin Curry, Joel Greenberg, and Carrie Penner. The American Federation for Children website links to right-wing think tanks funded by the DeVos, Scaife and Koch foundations, including the Cato Institute, the Center for Education Reform, Heartland Institute, Heritage Institute, Institute for Justice, and State Policy Network.
Board member Kirtley also serves on the board of the James Madison Institute, which has been heavily funded by Koch foundations. J. Stanley Marshall, the founding chairman of the institute also signed the proclamation at Alliance for Separation of School and State calling for the end of public education.
"The ad was funded through a state 527 committee that itself was funded a quarter million dollars by a federal organization called the American Federation for Children. That group is aiming these kinds of scurrilous attacks against Democratic Jewish candidates in several races.
The article continues with a list of other questionable campaign maneuvers by All Children Matter in Florida, Missouri and Virginia.
"The leadership dimension of education reform is the most exciting of all today. For example, for decades, school choice went nowhere as long as it was perceived as a Catholic issue. Evangelical Protestants who prevented this reform now join with Catholics to promote it, and these religious groups now ally themselves with free-market advocates and members of the African-American community."
The Commonwealth Foundation, mentioned in Morken's quote, and the Allegheny Policy Institute located in the Pittsburgh suburbs, are funded by the Scaife foundations. Richard Mellon Scaife also owns the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Michael W. Gleba is president of one Scaife foundation and treasurer of another. He also serves as chairman of the Commonwealth Foundation, whose emeritus directors include former Club for Growth president and new Republican Senator Pat Toomey.
PA State Rep. Dwight Evans, referenced in Morken's speech, is one the board of directors for the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO). [Note: The "O" in BAEO is for "Options" not "Opportunity" as originally stated in this report.] It was founded in 2000 by Howard Fuller, director of the Institute for Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, heavily funded by the Walton foundations. Kevin Chavous became chair of the BAEO in 2009 and also chairs Democrats For Educational Reform (DFER). Both Chavous and DFER board member Boykin Curry also serve on the board of Betsy Devos' American Federation for Children. The Philanthropy Roundtable's Catholic School Guide describes the DFER, launched in 2007. "Non-tax deductible contributions come from individuals like hedge-fund investors William Ackman, R. Boykin Curry IV, Charles Ledley, John Petry, and Whitney Tilson."
BAEO directors include Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Pennsylvania's Dwight Evans, Anthony Williams, and Dawn Chavous. Chavous is Executive Director of Students First and was the campaign manager of Williams' gubernatorial campaign. Since 2006, the program of the annual symposium of BAEO has included a statement in its program extending thanks for the support of the Honorable Dwight Evans, (PA state Representative) and the Honorable Anthony Williams, (PA state Senator). Also in the programs is recognition of the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, among others.
Anthony Williams is now the Democratic PA Senate Minority Whip and Democratic co-sponsor of Pennsylvania's SB-1. He has drawn statewide attention due to huge contributions to his campaign, funded by pro-voucher PACs including Students First PAC which had been funded with millions from Joel Greenberg and his SIG partners Arthur Dantchik and Jeffrey Yass. (This is perfectly legal in Pennsylvania since there are no personal campaign contribution limits in state races.) Shortly after his entry into the campaign, Williams raised a stunning 1.7 million dollars. Perhaps more shocking was the additional 1,625,000 dollars that the three funders contributed to Students First PAC, that was then contributed to Williams campaign in the week before the primary election.
Contributions to Students First PAC from March to May totaled over 1.5 million from Jeffrey Yass, 1.7 million from Arthur Dantchik, and 1.9 million from Joel Greenberg.
Sometimes the group would contribute in unison. For instance on May 11, 2010, one week prior to the primary election, Yass gave $533,333.00, Dantchik gave $533,333.00 and Greenberg gave $533,334.00. The graphic above is the trio's contributions to Students First PAC from March through May, compiled from the figures on the Pennsylvania Department of State Finance Reporting, and does not include the trio's contributions to other PACs which supported Williams' gubernatorial campaign. The American Federation for Children Action Fund also donated 1.2 million dollars to Student First PAC immediately prior to the election. The total receipts for Students First PAC in 2010 were $6,521,450.00 according to campaign finance reports.
[Note 4/21/11: Dantchik total corrected from over 1.4 to over 1.7 million]
Pennsylvania press described Williams' contributors as school choice supporters but failed to mention their affiliation with organizations and think tanks with ideological objections to public education. Joel Greenberg is a director of the Betsy DeVos-led American Federation for Children. Jeffrey Yass is on the board of the Cato Institute (Scaife/DeVos-funded). Ed Crane, founder and president of Cato, signed the Alliance for Separation of School and State proclamation to end public schools.
The Merry Band of Libertarian Lawyers and Their Religious Right Counterparts
"The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits."
Of the eight FEAF investors, one was CLAWS, the foundation through which Arthur Dantchik makes his charitable contributions, and another was Robert A. Levy. Levy is also on the board of the Institute for Justice and chairman of the board of directors of the Cato Institute. In 2009 the fund merged with the Congressional Effect Fund, which pulls out of the stock market when the U.S. Congress is in session. The FEAF's former website now features a short announcement that ends,
"Stay tuned for more in the fight to keep big businesses from becoming wholly-owned subsidiaries of Marxist-Socialism, Inc."
Libertarian-minded investment and hedge fund managers have contributed shocking amounts of money to promote the privatization of schools, but they are not the primary source of marketing of the anti-public education, anti-union, and anti-federal regulation agenda to the general public. This is how the partnership of the "doers and donors" described by Richard Devos works. The talking points are developed in the think tanks but are then largely distributed to the public by Religious Right organizations. For instance, the anti-environmental stance of the investors of the FEAF fund is echoed in a recent media production marketed by the Cornwall Alliance, a coalition of Religious Right leaders. The two groups have little else in common. One group objects to environmentalism as competition for dollars; the other objects to environmentalism as a competing religion.
The Cornwall Alliance's pseudo-documentary is titled "Resisting the Green Dragon." Marketed on DVD, it features national Religious Right leaders who claim that global warming is a hoax and that environmentalism is a religion in competition with Christianity. They describe environmentalism as "the cult of the green dragon."
Several of the organizations represented in the video production have been supported by the DeVos and Prince families. The Cornwall Alliance is headed by Calvin Beisner, a fellow of the Acton Institute (DeVos/Koch/Scaife-funded). Betsy DeVos has served on the Acton board and Dick DeVos was given the institute's Faith and Freedom Award in 2010. Acton's fellows also include other signers of the proclamation to end public schools, including Marvin Olasky.
Noted religious historian Randall Balmer describes the Acton Institute as part of a "powerful coalition to oppose environmental protection" that combines the Dominion Theology of the Religious Right and the wise use ideology of some corporate and business leaders. Dominion Theology is the belief that Christians should take authority or dominion over society and government. Acton has sponsored dominionist conferences including American Vision's Worldview Super Conference 2010.
Religious Right groups are often portrayed as only concerned with social issues like opposing gay rights and women's reproductive rights. But "Biblical Capitalism" or the belief that laissez-faire economics is biblically mandated, has been growing in popularity for more than two decades. Although the merry band of libertarians and the dominionists may have little in common, the anti-environmental, anti-union, anti-regulatory agenda of each is empowering the other. The combined front has become a formidable force for radical free market fundamentalism and the eradication of the public sector.
In October, Pennsylvania's auditor general Jack Wagner warned that a "flawed funding system" for the already existing charter schools was costing the state millions of dollars. Wagner, a Democrat, was also a candidate for governor in the 2010 primaries. He had voted for charter schools as a state senator and voiced support for them during his campaign, but prior to the general election released a report calling for a temporary moratorium on new charter and cyber schools, similar to those imposed in several other states. Pennsylvania taxpayers spent almost a billion dollars on 116 charter and 11 charter cyber schools in the 2008 -2009 school year.
Simultaneous with the huge cuts in the state's education budget, proposed by New Republican Governor Tom Corbett, the Senate will be voting on SB-1 which would provide vouchers for low income students and cost the state hundred of millions of dollars. Philadelphia's public schools could lose 40 million dollars of funding next year. Meanwhile Governor Corbett refuses to tax gas drilling in the state's abundant Marcellus Shale. He claims it would be unpatriotic.
The Future of Vouchers
"Now that it's clear Onorato won't be gaining financially from this move -- at least from the Williams backers -- this "grant" position on education looks all the more like an ill-conceived attempt to appeal to a demographic already likely to vote Republican, while inviting alienation of the union base that he'll need in lock-step to close a gaping 10-point deficit in the polls."
The word "grant" in quotes in the NRO article refers to the fact that Onorato would not use the word voucher. In hindsight, the huge campaign contributions to Williams may have been a well orchestrated trap for the Democratic Party, providing the illusion that support for vouchers was becoming more broad-based.
Williams' official website has a list of organizations which have signed up to support SB-1. The list of churches and religious organizations are primarily those with right-wing political leanings and the rest of the list is dominated by a who's who of pro-privatization think tanks. It is a list you would have expected to find on the website of Rick Santorum, not on the website of a Democratic state senator.
Polls have shown as many as two thirds of Pennsylvanians are opposed to using tax money to fund private and parochial schools, but on April 19, with the vote only a week away, Students First PA released a poll showing 54 percent of Pennsylvania's likely voters support the pending voucher legislation. Students First PAC list its public relations contact as Brabender Cox, one of the leading Republican media firms.
Students First PA held a rally in support of the bill at the state capitol on April 12. Video of the rally is part of an ad campaign on the Internet throughout the state, sponsored by Dick Armey's FreedomWorks. FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity spun off from the David Koch-founded Citizens For A Sound Economy. The media campaign is amplifying the voice of voucher supporters in preparation for the vote next week.
The videos of the rally produced by Students First PA are compelling, as was the conveniently-timed pro-school privatization movie, Waiting for Superman. They feature students and parents who have very legitimate concerns about education in their communities and good reason to fight back against the inequities in public education. Before Pennsylvanians begin to dismantle the state's public school systems, perhaps they should educate themselves about the agenda of the movement's leading advocate, Betsy DeVos.
DeVos wrote a biting op-ed for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call in 1997 in which she stated that her family did indeed expect a return on their huge investments.
"I know a little something about soft money, as my family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party. ...I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point."
It is highly doubtful that the expected return on the millions of dollars invested by the advocates for free market education is improving Pennsylvania's public schools. Their goal is privatization and we should take them seriously.
Also see Part Two in this series, a report tracking over $4.6 million dollars contributed to American Federation for Childrens' Indiana PAC in 2010, prior to the election ($5.8 million total).
This series has been continued:
Pro-Voucher Astroturfing Campaigns Across Nation Coordinated by DeVos, Funded by a Few Mega-Donors
Betsy DeVos Announces PA Governor Tom Corbett Will Keynote Pro-Voucher National Policy Summit
Strategy for Privatizing Public Schools Spelled Out by Dick DeVos in 2002 Heritage Foundation Speech
Protesters Object to School Privatization Efforts of DeVos, Michelle Rhee and PA and WI Governors
Voucher Advocate Betsy DeVos, Right-Wing Think Tanks Behind Koch-Style Attack on PA Public Schools | 11 comments (11 topical, 0 hidden)
Voucher Advocate Betsy DeVos, Right-Wing Think Tanks Behind Koch-Style Attack on PA Public Schools | 11 comments (11 topical, 0 hidden)