Today 24 states have one party Republican government—a Republican governor, house of representatives and state senate. For years now, state policy has become increasingly driven by the growth of far-right, one-party state government with the added impact of big money lobbying, far-right think tanks across the states, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—the membership organization that pairs member state legislators with member corporate lobbyists to create model laws that can be introduced in any state legislature. The mainstream media is catching on to some of this activity, and in the past couple of weeks, there have been stunning reports of far-right activity dominating state governments.
Last week, in The Ultimate In School Choice or School as a Commodity?, Lindsey Layton and Emma Brown, education reporters for the Washington Post, published an in-depth investigation of Nevada’s new school voucher law: “Starting next school year, any parent in Nevada can pull a child from the state’s public schools and take tax dollars with them, giving families the option to use public money to pay for private or parochial school or even for home schooling. The new law, which the state’s Republican-controlled legislature passed with help from the education foundation created by former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), is a breakthrough for conservatives, who call it the ultimate in school choice. And they are working to spread it nationwide…. Nevada’s law is singular because all of the state’s 450,000 K-12 public school children—regardless of income—are eligible to take the money to whatever school they choose.” “In January, Republicans took control of the Nevada legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time since 1929, generating the political momentum to enact the country’s most expansive voucher plan.”
Far-right foundations and think tanks are deeply involved in state politics these days. Layton and Brown quote Robert Enlow, who leads the (Milton) Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, commenting on Nevada’s new voucher program, “What this will do is continue to spread ripples across the country…. This bill shows that you can actually politically get it done.” Patricia Levesque is also quoted. Levesque now directs the Foundation for Excellence in Education, launched in Florida in 2008 by Jeb Bush (In preparation for his announcement as a presidential candidate Jeb Bush recently resigned from the Foundation for Excellence in Education.). Levesque describes Nevada’s new super-voucher program: “This is the wave of the future. In all aspects of our life, we look for ways to customize and give individuals more control over their path and destiny…. This is a fundamental shift in how we make decisions about education.”
Layton and Brown report that 27 states since 2006 have implemented types of school vouchers—vouchers, tuition tax credits, and education savings accounts. Unlike Wisconsin and Ohio, which passed school voucher programs two decades ago, at least Nevada does require children to have been enrolled in a public school before they can qualify for a voucher. Ohio and Wisconsin persist in awarding public vouchers to children who have always been enrolled in a parochial or private school. Nevada is the first state to offer vouchers to all students; in most states vouchers are targeted for low-income students.
Wisconsin was an early voucher state, and its current far-right governor, Scott Walker, continues to lead the movement to attack the public: undermining public sector unions, expanding Wisconsin’s school voucher program, transforming the mission of the University of Wisconsin into job preparation, and recently trying to eliminate tenure for college professors in the state university system. Yesterday the NY Times featured a major investigation into the money and power behind Walker’s far-right, anti-public agenda. Walker is the nation’s ultimate symbol of the public employee who opposes government employees and government services.
Here is what Patrick Healy and Monica Davey point out in yesterday’s NY Times investigation: “Less than a week after he was elected governor of Wisconsin in 2010, Scott Walker went to Milwaukee at the invitation of his political patron, Michael W. Grebe. Mr. Grebe was Mr. Walker’s campaign chairman. He was also president of the Bradley Foundation, a leading source of ideas and financing for American conservatives. And the bankers, industrialists and public intellectuals on the foundation’s board wanted to honor the state’s next governor over dinner…. While the Milwaukee-based Bradley foundation could not endorse candidates outright, it provided more than $2 million in grants to think tanks that implicitly championed Mr. Walker’s small-government platform, and $520,000 to Americans for Prosperity, a national group that held Tea Party rallies at which Mr. Walker spoke.”
The NY Times reporters continue: “More than any of his potential rivals for the White House, Mr. Walker, 47, is a product of a loose network of conservative donors, think tanks and talk radio hosts who have spent years preparing the road for a politician who could successfully present their arguments for small government to a broader constituency… The little-known governor-elect honored in Milwaukee has become something of a conservative hero, backed by wealthy donors like Charles G. and David H. Koch and revered as a leader brave enough to face down unions and their liberal supporters.” Back in 2001 and 2002, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee was integral in financing the campaign that that created the original school vouchers in Milwaukee, including the launch of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) to promote vouchers among Wisconsin’s communities of color. The BAEO has been operating nationally since 2002.
Today, according to yesterday’s NY Times report, the Bradley Foundation supports far-right think tanks in Wisconsin that promote Scott Walker’s anti-government policies and that work with groups like the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity and a wide network of far-right state think tanks. In Wisconsin, “The Bradley Foundation gave to Americans for Prosperity but was more integral to financing two think tanks that… generated policy ideas and talking points that were picked up by Wisconsin’s powerful bench of right-wing talk radio hosts. In 2009, the foundation gave a $1 million grant to one of the think tanks, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, to recommend policy ideas for the next governor. It also backed the MacIver Institute, providing one-third of its budget.” At stinktanks.org you can learn about the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and the MacIver Institute.
In their Washington Post investigation of Nevada vouchers Layton and Brown, quote the refreshing insight of Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association. She explains how state policy endorsed by the far-right is affecting public schools, the quintessential institution not of the 1 Percent, but instead of the rest of us: “I am terrified that there are more and more state legislators and state governors who have bought into this very dangerous idea that school is a commodity. It’s not profitable for very good private schools to allow in children who are disabled, kids who don’t speak English, kids whose parents who are struggling to put food on the table.” Bob Farrace of the National Association of Secondary School Principals is also quoted: “Funneling public funds to private schools means fewer teachers, fewer counselors, fewer supplemental services and, in general, fewer opportunities for the vast majority of kids who remain in public schools. It really violates the public trust when policymakers place individual benefit before public good.”