DeVos and School Privatization Funders Backing Philadelphia Democratic Mayoral Candidate
Rachel Tabachnick printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Fri May 15, 2015 at 02:28:33 PM EST
The Betsy DeVos-led American Federation for Children (AFC) and its core funders have spent more than fifteen million dollars in Pennsylvania over the last five years. The majority of the funding was in support of a Democratic state senator, Anthony H. Williams, who is a candidate in the Democratic mayoral primary for mayor of Philadelphia to be held on Tuesday, May 19. photo bush and williams at gala copy_zpsfmixikt6.jpg  While banking on Williams, AFC has quietly filed and begun to fund a new Pennsylvania political action committee (PAC) in preparation for their ongoing onslaught in the state.  Initial funding for the PAC has come directly from the DeVos family, the national leaders behind school privatization as well as major funders of the GOP and Religious Right causes. Thus far the only recipient is Williams.

[Photograph: Anthony H. Williams (left), Jeb Bush, and Kevin Chavous attend AFC's First Annual New York Gala on October 30, 2014.]

Sen. Williams, who presents himself as more liberal on other issues, has been a not-so-secret school privatization weapon since his conservative and libertarian backers spent millions of dollars on his failed gubernatorial bid in the 2010 Democratic primaries. But Williams had been touted by conservatives for more than two decades for providing openings into urban Philadelphia, and has been key to their repackaging of the school privatization movement as the "new civil rights" issue.

An AFC-affiliated political action committee (PAC) with the misleading name of Students First PA PAC, was the vehicle for three Pennsylvania-based school privatization supporters to funnel millions directly into Williams' campaign in the 2010 primaries. This was possible because Pennsylvania lacks contribution limits for state campaigns.  However, the city of Philadelphia does limit both individual and PAC contributions.  The close of the most recent reporting cycle in early May revealed that the three Pennsylvanians were provided almost all of the funding of a PAC operating independently from Williams' campaign - almost seven million dollars  - a figure that dwarfs the total combined campaign funding of the five Democratic candidates in the race.  

 photo williams from afc copy_zpsnbpv0bdc.jpg Meanwhile,  AFC started a second PAC in the state in 2014 which has not yet received much publicity. The only expenditure reported online thus far is $25,000 dollars to Anthony Williams' state senate campaign account, "Anthony H. Williams for Senate," on August 29, 2014.   As noted in Philadelphia press , Williams benefitted from legal loopholes that allowed him to tap his senate account, where individual and PAC contributions are not limited and far exceeded the campaign finance limits of Philadelphia. Williams' mayoral campaign was fined earlier this year, but for funds transferred from the political committee Friends of Anthony H. Williams.  photo afc to williams copy_zpsiwr7mc6w.jpg(See sidebar at end of article.)

The initial funding for the AFC Action PAC in 2014 and 2015 has come from Betsy DeVos ($15,000 dollars in 2014 and $37,500 in 2015), her husband Dick ($37,500 in 2015), and William Oberndorf ($15,00 in 2014).

While funding for AFC's nonprofits is difficult to track, funding for the affiliated PACs is provided by a small group , usually consisting of only two to three dozen wealthy conservative and libertarian supporters. In addition to the DeVoses, Obendorf, and the three SIG partners, these funders include several Walton heirs to the Walmart fortune, J. C. Huizenga, Roger Hertog, Richard Sharp, and John Kirtley.

Kirtley is the vice chair of AFC and founder of the nonprofit which manages the funding for Florida's "neovoucher" program or corporate tax credit program.  The program diverts state taxes owed by corporations to funding for students attending private schools.  Florida has the largest program of this type in the country, followed by Pennsylvania.  The programs are advertised as costing the taxpayer nothing, although in reality the corporations pay nothing in Florida and little or nothing in Pennsylvania. The cost is borne by the state and taxpayers.

The Funders Behind the School Privatization Juggernaut

Betsy DeVos is the former chair of the Michigan GOP and her husband, Amway/Alticor heir Dick DeVos, was the GOP candidate for governor of Michigan in 2006. Her brother Eric Prince founded Blackwater USA, and her parents and in-laws are among the largest funders in the country of Religious Right and conservative infrastructure, including the Family Research Council's Washington D.C. headquarters. "Other than possibly the Koch brothers, few billionaires have a more established place in conservative America than the DeVos clan," according to a 2011 Forbes article.

The three Pennsylvania-based funders of the AFC efforts are partners in Susquehanna Investment Group (SIG). Arthur Dantchik is a director of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian legal nonprofit founded by anti-affirmative action champion Clint Bolick and seeded with money from the Koch brothers.  Joel Greenberg has been a director of AFC. Jeffrey Yass is a current director of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank co-founded by Charles Koch.   For more on the trio see a recent Hedgeclippers profile.

Oberndorf is a co-founder of AFC's 501(c)(3) affiliate Alliance for School Choice, chairman emeritus of AFC, and a director of the Jeb Bush-founded Foundation for Excellence in Education.  

In addition to driving the school privatization movement, AFC and its funders support the ongoing war on labor unions. California-based William Oberndorf was one of the  leading funders for California's Proposition 32 or "Paycheck Protection Initiative" (and against California's proposition for free half-day public pre-school). AFC PACs and funders were leading supporters of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has tracked  $2.2 million in support of Walker from school voucher supporters since 2006, including $1.1 million through AFC in support of Walker in the 2012 recall.  

Sidebar: Philadelphia Board of Ethics Settlement with Anthony Williams Mayoral Campaign

Pennsylvania state campaigns have no spending limits but the city of Philadelphia restricts individual contributions in a calendar year to $2,900 dollars and a political committee or PAC's contributions to a total of $11,900 dollars in a calendar year. Candidates can move funds from a state to city campaign but with restrictions. Williams campaign was fined by the Board of Ethics of the City of Philadelphia for having $438,000 dollars in "excess pre-candidacy contributions" or amounts transferred to his mayoral campaign form contributions exceeding those allowed by the city's campaign finance guidelines.

For more on the DeVoses and school privatization in Pennsylvania and other states, see numerous links at: The_New_Kochs_Anthology_of_DeVos_Support_Funding_of_School_Privatization_and _Religious_Right_


"The Right's School Choice Scheme" beginning on page 3 of the Summer 2012 issue of The Public Eye.

Also see "Sorry, but Tony Williams is not the new Stokely Carmichael," by Will Bunch at

Big money does not always win. School privatization is not inevitable. And as Lincoln said, you can't fool all of the people all of the time.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat May 23, 2015 at 01:41:05 PM EST

Although he was considered invincible early in the campaign, Anthony H. Williams lost, and by a huge margin. It's encouraging to see voters reject the propaganda of the privatization movement.  Let's hope to see more of this.

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