Pro-Voucher Astroturfing: Campaigns Across Nation Coordinated by DeVos, Funded by a Few Mega-Donors
Rachel Tabachnick printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Apr 24, 2011 at 10:55:09 PM EST
 Part Two - Indiana

In addition to the millions spent in Pennsylvania, over $4.6 million dollars was raised by the Indiana affiliate of the Betsy DeVos-led pro-voucher organizations prior to the 2010 elections, all from 13 mega-donors ($5.8 million for the year). The Indiana PAC money also funded campaigns in Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin and other states.

The Indiana state senate passed a sweeping school voucher bill on Thursday, April 21, following an intensive crusade by the Betsy DeVos-led  American Federation For Children and affiliated organizations.  The blitz campaigns in Indiana and other states are similar to the one in Pennsylvania (described in detail in the previous report).  A small core group of donors, ideologically opposed to public education, contribute millions of dollars to the pro-voucher movements in states across the nation. The massive funding and distribution of the funds around the nation is a classic case of astroturfing, creating the illusion that there is a spontaneous wave of grass roots and bipartisan support for vouchers.

Borrowing the definition from Sourcewatch, astroturf lobbying "refers to apparently grassroots-based citizen groups or coalitions that are primarily conceived, created and/or funded by corporations, industry trade associations, political interests or public relations firms."

The pro-voucher astroturf model is being repeated throughout the country:

-- DeVos-led organizations fund a local entity and political action committee (PAC) in the state.

--Funding comes from a few mega-donors who make contributions in one location. These funds are then moved to non-profits and PACs in other states, obscuring the identity of the small group of original donors.  (This report focuses on the affiliated PAC in Indiana which had over $4.6 million in receipts from 13 donors prior to the 2010 election, and sent most of the funds to six other states.)  The pro-voucher 501(C)(3) nonprofits across the nation, which do not directly fund candidates, are also largely funded by the DeVos-led entities.

--Contributions are made primarily to candidates in state and local campaigns, and for advertising, direct mail, and canvassing, helping to promote the illusion of a surge of grass roots support.  Funding is spent to commission a poll prior to the legislative vote which shows majority support in the state for school vouchers.

--Funding and advertising support is provided to small group of Democrats who become the face of the movement, promoting the illusion that there is significant bipartisan support.

--Teachers who have spent years in the classroom, teachers' unions, and opponents of vouchers, are demonized as not caring about urban children and accused of obstructing the altruistic efforts of pro-voucher supporters. The radical privatization agenda of DeVos and wealthy backers is not revealed.

In Pennsylvania millions of dollars were raised from a few donors, and contributed to Students First PAC, an affiliate of American Federation for Children.  In turn, this money was donated to the Democratic gubernatorial primary campaign of vocally pro-voucher supporter Anthony H. Williams.  Contributions, some as much as $100,000, were also made to other candidates' campaigns.  Attack ads have demonized teachers' unions as big money "special interests" and claimed legislators opposed to vouchers are being influenced by union contributions.  However, the campaign contributions from the DeVos-led entities and affiliates in Pennsylvania dwarfed that of teachers unions, who represent hundreds of thousands of educators.  The pro-voucher funding across the nation, on the other hand, can be tracked to a few wealthy individuals and family foundations.

As in Pennsylvania, millions of dollars were raised for the American Federation for Children affiliate PAC in Indiana. However, the Indiana PAC sent most of that money to six other states to fund contributions to candidates and advertising.  The money trail led to attack ads in the 2010 elections in Florida and Wisconsin, some attacking opponents of the pro-voucher candidates being supported, but mentioning nothing about vouchers or school choice.

Betsy DeVos, the Four Star General General of the Voucher Wars

Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick, son of Amway founder Richard DeVos, have founded and funded pro-voucher organizations and registered PACs in numerous states. Betsy is the daughter of the late Edgar and Elsa Prince and sister of Erik Prince, founder of the controversial mercenary private army, Blackwater, Inc. The Devos family are major donors to the Republican Party, Religious Right organizations, and right-wing think tanks.  Leaders of both the Religious Right organizations and free market fundamentalist think tanks that the DeVos family support, openly advocate the eradication of public schools.

Also see the 2010 Church and State article by Rob Boston, titled "Michigan Multi-Millionaire Betsy DeVos is Four-Star General in a Deceptive Behind-the-Scenes War on Public Schools and Church-State Separation."

Betsy DeVos has headed a confusing array of state and national pro-voucher entities under different names, including different types of non-profits and PACs. The current Betsy DeVos-led organization at the helm of the voucher movement is the American Federation for Children (AFC).  As noted in the Pennsylvania report, the AFC was established after Betsy DeVos and  All Children Matter have failed to pay a 5.2 million dollar fine in Ohio for funneling money from the affiliate organization in Virginia in amounts exceeding Ohio's campaign finance laws.  The organization was also fined $500 for providing media support for candidates without registering as a PAC in Wisconsin.

All Children Matter was heavily funded by John Walton with contributions and a bequest (after he was killed in a plane crash in 2005) totaling $4,151,750.  The organization received another 4.6 million from other large donors between 2005 and 2007, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.  Funding was then distributed to affiliated PACs in other states.  

For instance, on October 17, 2006, All Children Matter moved 1.99 million dollars to the All Children Matter PACs in Colorado, Ohio, Florida, and Indiana.  When money is moved from one state PAC to another it obscures the source of the original funding because the state disclosure form will only show the source as the contributing PAC.  For instance, Florida residents would have no way to know that John Walton and a few wealthy donors were the source of the $550,000 which transferred to the Florida PAC on October 17, 2006.  Although it is difficult now to follow the money trail, Super PACs which qualify under the Citizens United ruling will not be required to report their donors and tracking the money will be impossible.

All Children Matter is now defunct and Betsy DeVos is at the helm of the American Federation for Children, incorporated as a 501(C)(4).  The website indicates that tax deductible donations are to be given to its affiliate 501(C)(3), Alliance for School Choice. Those who want to donate to candidates supported by the organization are directed to contribute to the American Federation for Children Action Fund with a Washington, D.C. address.  Another DeVos-led nonprofit, Advocates for School Choice, also changed its name to American Federation for Children in 2009.

Advocates for School Choice funded other nonprofit pro-voucher organizations across the country including:

Children's Education Council of Missouri
Believe in Louisiana ($225,000 in 2008)
All Children Matter  - Michigan
DC Children First ($583,000 in 2007)
Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education
Alliance for School Choices in Education - Michigan
Parent for Choice in Education - Utah (I$750,000 in 2007)
Parents for Choice in Education Issues Committee -Utah ($350,000 in 2007)
School Choice Indiana
Rhode Island Scholarship Advocates
REACH Alliance - Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
BOAST Alliance - Maryland
Partners for Educational Freedom in North Carolina
Texans for School Choice

The Pennsylvania affiliate organization of AFC, Students First PAC was initiated in early 2010 and was the focus of the Pennsylvania report. A few individuals contributed millions in funding, much of it spent in support of a single candidate.  This was possible because there are no limits on personal contributions in state races in Pennsylvania.  

This report follows the money trail from the Indiana affiliated PAC to other states, to demonstrate how millions of dollars from a few wealthy mega-donors can manufacture the illusion that there is broad-based and nationwide support for an issue.

The Indiana Money Trail

The Indiana-registered American Federation for Children PAC raised over $4.6 million dollars prior to the election in 2010 from only 13 mega-donors, none from Indiana. The chart shows one filing period, between 4/10/2010 and 10/08/2010. (Some of the names are repeated and personal information is removed). Of this total, more than 1.3 million came from the trio that were the largest donors for the Pennsylvania effort - Arthur Dantchik, Joel Greenberg, and Jeffrey Yass.  As noted in the PA report, Greenberg is a member of the board of the American Federation for Children; Yass is on the board of the Cato Institute; and Dantchik is on the board of Institute for Justice.  The Waltons listed are heirs of the Walmart fortune. Alice Walton gave an additional $887,137.25 after the election and another contributor, Julian Robertson, gave $1 million dollars on 10/12/2010. The total for the year, before and after the election, was over $5.8 million dollars.

Campaign finance records show the American Federation for Children Action Fund was registered in Indiana on January 18, 2010. (The address is the law firm of Bopp, Coleson and Bostrom and Barry Bostrom is the contact.) The defunct All Children Matter shows up in the Indiana campaign finance records, but with no 2010 activity.  Total contributions to AFC Action Fund in 2010 were $4,684,755.26 with the balance of  $274,245.11 remaining at the end of 2010.  

Some of the money donated and filed as receipts to the Indiana-based PAC stayed in Indiana and was contributed to the Hoosiers For Economic Growth PAC.  That PAC in turn contributed to a long list of state political candidates in amounts from $500 to $50,000.(Select expenditures to see the list on this link.)

The AFC Action Fund was the major donor to Hoosier's For Economic Growth with aggregate contributions of $285,000. Other donors included Patrick Byrne, who heads  The chart at left is compiled from AFC Action Fund's disclosure and shows a total of  $240,000 in contributions to this PAC.

Only one direct contribution was made to a candidate by the Indiana-registered AFC Action Fund, and that was Shumate for House 73 in Tulsa Oklahoma, in the amount of $4,500.  Most of the money was passed on to affiliated PACs in other states, as shown in the chart, and used to fund campaign contributions, advertising, mailers, and canvassing.

Following state PACs is difficult, particularly when they have affiliates in multiple locations.  The Citizens United case will now make it impossible to do this type of research on contributors since qualifying PACs will no longer have to reveal their donor information.

The online state disclosures provide the same Washington DC address for the Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin, and New Jersey AFC entities which makes tracking confusing. For instance, Students First PAC in Pennsylvania received $1,100,000 from the Indiana PAC.  This was made in two contributions of $450,000 on 10/4/2010 and $650,000 on 10/08/2010, also shown on the Indiana AFC Action Fund disclosure.  However the Students First PAC disclosure filed in Pennsylvania shows receipt of these two contributions and an additional $100,000 from American Federation for Children on 10/15/2010 and all three contributions list an Alexandria address.  This makes it is almost impossible to track where the other contribution originated in this case as well as who donated the money.

From Indiana to Pennsylvania Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin, Utah, Iowa, and New Jersey

Despite the past legal troubles of All Children Matter, there may be nothing  illegal about American Federation for Children's 2010 campaign activities, as many PACs move their money around the country. Whether or not campaign finance laws are being broken is irrelevant to this report. This report is also not focused on the pros and cons of school choice, but to show that a small core group of activists supported by a few mega-donors can create the impression of a growing grass roots national campaign.


The Indiana AFC PAC contributed $1,100,000 to Students First PAC in Pennsylvania, an organization initiated in 2010 which has spent millions supporting candidates, a poll, and extensive advertising, including attack ads.  This is the topic of the report on Pennsylvania in Part One of this series.


The AFC Action Fund donated $255,000 to the Committee for Florida's Education and the funds were spent on media buys, including attack ads against the Democratic candidate for attorney general  Dan Gelber.  This is described further in the PA report.  Gelber is Jewish but was demonized in the ads for damaging Jewish private education by opposing vouchers.  The graphic at right was a full page ad in the Jewish Press  purchased by the Committee for Florida's Education. The attack ads created a furor. Kim Kirtley, wife of John Kirtley, vice chairman of American Federation for Children, was a spokesperson for the candidate running against Dan Gelber, and AFC was the sole donor to Committee for Florida's Education.  However, the chairman of Committee for Florida's Education is a Jewish political consultant from Teaneck, New Jersey. There is significant Orthodox Jewish support for vouchers in some areas since they can be used to fund private religious schools. The Orthodox Union is listed by Students First as supporting the vouchers bill (SB-1) in Pennsylvania.

The Florida Federation for Children PAC received $450,000 from the Indiana AFC Action Fund, but shows a total of $950,000 of receipts from AFC (D.C. address) in its Florida campaign finance reports for the general election 2010.  The vast majority of the expenditures went to media and consulting firms who do consulting, advertising, and direct mail.


The Indiana-registered AFC PAC contributed to two affiliates in Georgia with the AFC name, with 149,000 to the AFC GA Independent Committee and $50,000 to the AFC Action Fund  GA PAC.  The GA PAC funds were contributed to a list of candidates who received between $500 and $2,400, and were also spent for canvassing.  The AFC GA -Independent Committee expenditures were for direct mail and canvassing.

Both the Georgia affiliate PAC and Independent Committee list Allan Hughes under chairperson information and a registration date of 5/12/10.  Hughes has also served as chairman fro All Children Matter (Georgia).


The Indiana AFC PAC contributed $63,450 to the Wisconsin AFC PAC.  The expenditures for the Wisconsin AFC PAC were primarily for canvassing, and advertising.   Additionally, the Wisconsin PAC received $25,000 on 9/03/2010 from Education Reform Now, led by Joel Klein.  Media buys in Wisconsin were used to support pro-voucher Democrats running against Democrats not supporting vouchers in the primaries and for support of pro-voucher candidates in the general election.  The AFC financed numerous attack ads that mentioned nothing about vouchers or school choice. The mailer shown was sponsored by AFC, as shown on the return address.  There is nothing about school choice or vouchers.  The mailer attacks the incumbent state senator Pat Kreitlow for "killing" Wisconsin jobs.

Another large contributor in the 2010 Wisconsin elections was the conduit group named Fund for Parent Choice.  In Wisconsin and some other states, conduits raise money for candidates similar to PACs, but conduits must report the original donor and the specific amount that individual is giving to each candidate.  The Wisconsin conduit Fund for Parent Choice contributed $118,000 to candidates in September and October prior to the general election.  The list of contributors in the Wisconsin is similar to the donors of the 4.7 million to the Indiana AFC PAC and included:  Dick DeVos, Betsy DeVos, Christy Walton, Jim Walton, Lynne Walton, Alice Walton, William Obendorf, Susan Obendorf, George Mitchell, and Susan Mitchell (president of School Choice Wisconsin).  The Pennsylvania trio of mega-donors who gave millions to Students First PAC and to the Indiana AFC Action Fund, also gave direct donation to candidates in Wisconsin, including $6,000 each on 9/29/2010 to gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker.

During the 2010 election, the publication Express Milwaukee warned that there was no way to account for large sums of money coming into the state and that Wisconsin voters had no way of knowing who was paying for attack ads or why.

On the right, there are innocuously named groups such as the Washington, D.C.-based pro-school voucher corporation American Federation for Children (AFC) Action Fund, which has been promoting three Milwaukee Democrats in their primaries--state Sen. Jeff Plale, Stephanie Findley and Angel Sanchez--with fliers, robocalls and radio and TV ads. 

It's difficult to figure out who, exactly, is funding these entities. 

For example, AFC Action Fund's latest campaign finance report merely shows $50,000 in "other income and commercial loans" from--you guessed it--AFC. As of this writing, AFC has spent more than $70,000 on the three races."

The Indiana disclosure showed a contribution of $20,750 to Educational Opportunities on 9/24/2010 in Des Moines, Iowa.  Educational Opportunities subsequently contributed to over 50 political campaigns in amounts from $100. to $1000.  The committee code is 9805 in the Iowa campaign disclosure database.

Educational Opportunities is registered under the name of Linda Duffy in Davenport Iowa, who also is a board member of Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education, shown as a recipient of funding from the Devos-led Advocates for School Choice, now renamed American Federation for Children.  AFC/Advocates for School Choice contributed $65,000 in 2007 and $50,000 in 2008 to the Iowa organizations according to the organizations 990 tax reports.  The 990 tax report for 2007 for Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education shows $15,000 in total income in 2007 with no grants, and $15,000 in grants and total income in 2008.


Utah online disclosure report function is currently not working so there was no way to track the  Parents for Choice PAC which received $50,000 from the Indiana-registered American Federation for Children Action Fund.  In the past, however, the DeVos-led All Children's Matter was the primary donor to the Utah PAC, according to an AP article in Deseret News.  The April 14, 2007 article states,

"Byrne is Parents for Choice in Education's largest donor from Utah. Nearly half the money the group spent on legislative campaigns came from a political action committee called All Children Matter based out of Alexandria, Va., that has its headquarters in Grand Rapids, Mich. All Children Matter donated $240,000 to Parents for Choice in Education in 2006 and about $250,000 during the 2004 campaign cycle, finance reports in Utah show.

Utah was one of 10 states that All Children Matter has targeted to affect state elections, spending about $8 million nationwide in the 2003-04 election cycle. It is an organization dedicated to supporting candidates who favor charter schools and voucher programs. It's largely financed by heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune and the founders of Amway, according to finance reports in Virginia.  In 2004, Jim Walton and John Walton, children of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, each donated more than $3 million to All Children Matter, the reports showed.

In 2006, the estate of John Walton donated another $4.1 million, the reports showed.  "It's certainly not a grass-roots operation. These are heavy hitters," said Rich Robinson, director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonpartisan organization that tracks campaign spending.

New Jersey
The New Jersey campaign finance online system is limited.  The NJ American Federation for Children PAC is registered under the AFC Washington DC address.  The documentation available online shows a contribution from Boykin Curry, (board member of both AFC and of Democrats for Education Reform), in the amount of $7,200 on 6/7/10, and a disbursement of $2,500 to as single entry listed as Friends of Bombelyn, Johnson, and Aroco.  No other receipts or disbursements were itemized.

Another pro-voucher entity in New Jersey is E3 or Excellent Education for Everyone, which is also heavily funded by the Walton family. An independent watchdog group that monitors foundations, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, published the following in 2004:

"Excellent Education for Everyone, or E3, the state's leading proponent of school vouchers, has been granted at least $1.65 million from the Walton Family Foundation, a perennial underwriter of "family values" think tanks, Christian schools and Republican candidates for national public office, according to federal tax filings."

The article continues, quoting Dan Gaby, then the executive director of E3 (now deceased),

"Dan Gaby, executive director of E3, said it is no secret that most of its funding comes from organizations that promote a distinctly conservative agenda.
`We have no compunction about where our funding comes from,' Gaby said. `And we get money from them every year. Look, the people who fund us believe in free-market solutions. I don't care what rhetoric you throw around about the right wing and conservatives. It's all ridiculous.'

Back to Indiana

This report traced the money trail - from one single Indiana PAC in one election year - to demonstrate that the DeVos-led pro-voucher movement is a classic example of astroturfing and allows a few very wealthy people to manipulate policy.  The huge sums of money pouring into these organizations pays not only for campaign contributions and advertising, but also the polls which they commission.  In January 2010, prior to the legislative vote, the Foundation for Educational Choice in Indianapolis released a poll which supposedly proved that there was majority support for school vouchers in Indiana. The mission of this foundation is included on its masthead,

"Advancing Milton & Rose Friedman's Vision of School Choice for All"

Milton Friedman, was the patriarch of the "Chicago School" of economics. Much of the evidence quoted in support of vouchers comes from this same ideologically-driven institute, including the touted 2010 publication "A Win-Win Solution:  Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers." Friedman made the following statement recorded in a briefing paper for the Cato Institute and also featured on the website of the Foundation for Educational Choice. (The Cato Institute was founded and continues to be led by Ed Crane, one of the signers of the Alliance for Separation of School and State's proclamation to end public education.)

"Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system." -Milton Friedman

Cherry-picked research from Friedman's foundation and other ideologically driven pro-voucher institutes are being cited as subjective evidence of the success of voucher programs, despite substantial evidence to the contrary.  Polls commissioned by the pro-voucher entities have been conducted across the nation and show majority support for vouchers, despite substantial evidence to the contrary.  Yet, led by the four-star general of the movement Betsy DeVos, the pro-voucher movement is framing the debate in states across the nation. Millions of dollars from a few donors allows them to do so.

This series has been continued.

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

Vouchers/Tax Credits Funding Creationism, Revisionist History, Hostility Toward Other Religions

Prince and DeVos Families at Intersection of Radical Free Market Privatizers, Religious Right

So, how do we counter these UNIONS of money? Corporations, PACs, etc. All money UNIONS. Why are these not highlighted by the left and held up as hypocrisy coming from the right? Much along the lines as contracts. Teachers, UAW, and other union contracts? Need to be modified. Wll Street employment/bonus contracts? Sacrosanct.

by ordaj on Tue Apr 26, 2011 at 01:14:49 PM EST

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