Betsy DeVos Announces PA Governor Tom Corbett Will Keynote Pro-Voucher National Policy Summit
Rachel Tabachnick printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Apr 26, 2011 at 11:21:52 AM EST
Vote on SB-1 could take place in the Pennsylvania Senate as early as today. [Author's Note 4/27/11: The vote did not take place! Apparently there was not enough support in the PA Senate as of yesterday for the bill to pass. Please help to get the reports - Part One and Part Two - on the astroturfing campaign behind this and other state voucher bills, to your local educators, legislators, and journalists.]

Betsy DeVos and American Federation for Children (AFC) announced yesterday that new Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett (R) will be the keynote speaker for their National Policy Summit on May 9.  AFC is at the center of funding and promotion of school voucher bills, which allow public school dollars to be used to fund private and religious school students.  This is a nationwide campaign which parallels the Koch-funded war on unions. American's United's Rob Boston has described AFC and the DeVos-led crusade as a  "deceptive behind-the-scenes war on public schools and separation of church and state."  Nevertheless, the vote in the PA Senate could take place as early as today, and Pennsylvanians may lose this battle to the small, but heavily-funded, pro-voucher camp.

The American Federation for Children press release states,
"The event will inform and encourage school choice supporters to promote school choice programs in their own states and communities and will feature some of the nation's leading public policy-makers and analysts—including former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, renowned pollster and political analyst Frank Luntz, and Pennsylvania State Senator Anthony Williams, a chief sponsor of Pennsylvania's Senate Bill 1"
 In 2010, an affiliate organization of the DeVos-led AFC was established in Pennsylvania and raised  $6.5 million dollars, most of it from three partners in one investment firm, and an additional $1.2 million from other AFC affiliate PACs.  Students First led a classic "astroturf lobbying" effort, funding Republican and Democratic candidates and an intense media campaign.  

Repeated in states throughout the country, the media blitz serves to create the impression that taxpayers are clamoring to send students to private and religious schools with public school funds.  Most evidence in Pennsylvania and elsewhere is to the contrary, and when voters are allowed to make the decision, they have overwhelmingly defeated voucher initiatives in state after state. (Graphic above is from the Detroit Free Press reporting a two to one defeat of a voucher initiative in 2000, despite a two to one advantage in funding by the pro-voucher campaign.) Pennsylvanians across the spectrum, from liberals to Tea Party members, have vocally opposed the bill for a variety of different reasons.  Nevertheless, the loudest voice in the political dialogue has been that of the well-funded Students First PAC campaign.

See two extensive reports on this issue at Talk2action:

Part One
Voucher Advocate Betsy DeVos, Right-Wing Think Tanks Behind Koch-Style Attack on Public Schools

Part Two
Pro-Voucher Astroturfing:  Campaigns Across Nation Coordinated by DeVos, Funded by a Few Mega-Donors

The graphic on the right is a mailer with "Paid for by Students First of Pennsylvania," printed at the bottom.  American Federation for Children affiliates have sponsored similar attack ads and mailers in other states, including Florida and Wisconsin.

The mailer was sent to residents represented by state Sen. Daylin Leach,  (17th senatorial district) who strongly opposes SB-1.  Text from the mailer includes the following:

"Why would Daylin Leach be against legislation that helps so many Philadelphia children?  Unfortunately, it may be because Leach is listening to teachers union leaders who oppose SB-1 and have contributed a fortune to people like Leach."

"Demand Daylin Leach support SB-1.  Call him at xxx-xxx-xxxx and tell him not to let politcal contributions sway his vote."

"The question is will Leach listen to you, or to the teachers union leaders who are giving him big contributions, and want him to oppose school choice."

There are demonstrably false claims in the mailer, but it is most notable for the theme which has been echoing across the nation.  Financed with millions, the pro-privatization camp has blanketed the country with the image of themselves as a grass roots movement and altruistic little guy in the battle against the big, bad, and selfish teacher's unions. The idea that public school teachers are "big special interest money" obstructing the rosy future (toward privatized education), has become firmly embedded in the psyche of many Americans.

Students First PAC is an organization which was registered in the state on March 10, 2010 by a Republican strategist.  It is affiliated with American Federation for Children, the name now used for PACs across the nation since DeVos' All Children Matter lost its legal appeal and was fined $5.2 million dollars in Ohio for breaking campaign finance laws. Betsy DeVos and AFC have duplicated this money and media blitz in states across the nation, funded by a few wealthy pro-privatization supporters.

Students First PAC spent an unprecedented amount of money in the Pennsylvania elections in 2010, dwarfing the contributions to candidates by the state's teachers unions.  These unions represent hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians working in schools across the state.  The Students First PAC contributions are from a group of people who could fit around a medium-sized conference table, plus $1.2 million from other AFC affiliates. Most came from the Indiana affiliate whose contributors could also fit around a conference table and include the three Pennsylvania mega-donors.  (See Part Two of this series for sources of funding to the Indiana affiliate PAC.)

The funders of Students First PAC and other AFC affiliates serve on the boards and finance right-wing think tanks that are ideologically opposed to public education.  These institutes have spent years preparing sophisticated strategies for privatizing education in America.

Who is the "big special interest money" in this battle?

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