The Same People Now Trying to Undermine Democratic Elections Have Been Trying for 30 Years to Privatize Public Schools

The players are the very same. For decades they’ve been coming for our public schools. Now they are coming for the democratic process itself by trying to undermine fair elections.

Jane Mayer’s article in the July 9, 2021 New Yorker, The Big Money Behind the Big Lie, begins: “Trump’s attacks on democracy are being promoted by rich conservatives determined to win at all costs.” Mayer uncovers the players behind the Arizona Senate’s demand for an audit of the 2020 election results in Maricopa County. They include the very same people who have worked systematically over the past 30 years to privatize and undermine our American system of public education.

On the significance of this year’s election audit in Phoenix—an election audit conducted by a questionable private contractor—Mayer quotes Ralph Neas, who formerly led the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and later People for the American Way: “The Maricopa County audit exposes exactly what the Big Lie is all about. If they come up with an analysis that discredits the 2020 election results in Arizona, it will be replicated in other states furthering more chaos. That will enable new legislation. Millions of Americans could be disenfranchised….”

Mayer continues: “Although the Arizona audit may appear to be the product of local extremists, it has been fed by sophisticated, well-funded national organizations whose boards of directors include some of the country’s wealthiest and highest-profile conservatives. Dark-money organizations, sustained by undisclosed donors, have relentlessly promoted the myth that American elections are rife with fraud., and… they have drafted, supported, and in some cases taken credit for state laws that make it harder to vote.”

Mayer names some of the organizations involved in the attack on the integrity of last year’s election: the Heritage Foundation; the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—a corporate funded nonprofit that generates model laws for state legislatures; the Federalist Society; the Judicial Education Project, “which has rebranded itself as the Honest Election Project”; and FreedomWorks. Here is what all these groups have in common: “They have all received funding from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Based in Milwaukee, the private, tax-exempt organization has become an extraordinary force in persuading mainstream Republicans to support radical challenges to election rules…. With an endowment of some eight hundred and fifty million dollars, the foundation funds a network of groups that have been stoking fear about election fraud, in some cases for years.”

What is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and where might we have heard of these people before? Mayer provides some history: “The Bradley Foundation remains small in comparison with such liberal behemoths as the Ford Foundation, but it has become singularly preoccupied with wielding national political influence. It has funded conservative projects ranging from school-choice initiatives to the controversial scholarship of Charles Murray, the co-author of the 1994 book, The Bell Curve.”

A long time ago, in the early 1990s, the Bradley Foundation was a major force behind the first school vouchers in the United States—in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Bradley Foundation funded the state’s defense against a legal challenge to the program and also paid for mounting an enormous public relations campaign behind school vouchers. In 2003, People for the American Way explored the sudden appearance of a new advocacy group, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO): “BAEO seemed to come out of nowhere with a series of compelling television ads featuring African-American parents talking about the importance of school choice… BAEO bills itself as a coalition of up-and-coming leaders working within the African American community.  But a closer look shows that BAEO has been bankrolled by a small number of right-wing foundations… It is not surprising that BAEO is headquartered in Milwaukee. Wisconsin has been the linchpin of the voucher movement for over a decade and the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation has been at the center of the action…  The Bradley Foundation played a key role when the Milwaukee voucher program came under legal challenge for violating the separation of church and state… Bradley gave the state of Wisconsin $350,000 to pay for the work that Kenneth Starr… and his firm… did to defend the voucher program before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.”

In a 2017 investigation for Madison Wisconsin’s Cap Times, Mary Bottari comments on the outrageous irony that the Bradley Foundation, despite its history of giving to far-right political causes, continues to be designated by the IRS as a charitable nonprofit: “The Bradley Foundation, organized as a tax-exempt ‘charitable’ foundation under 501(c)(3) of the tax code, appears to be pursuing a highly partisan game plan: funding an ‘infrastructure’ on the right that benefits the Republican Party, while at the same time attempting to crush supporters of the Democratic Party.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council is another of the major players Jane Mayer identifies behind today’s outrageous attack on the authenticity of the 2020 election. The Center for Media and Democracy lists ALEC as a regular and significant recipient of operating grants from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Common Cause has had a long running whistle-blower complaint lodged against ALEC because, while it is also identified for tax purposes by the IRS as a “charitable” nonprofit, ALEC is a bill mill with a long history of churning out model school voucher bills along with other far-right projects. ALEC’s Education Task Force regularly drafts and circulates model school privatization bills, which are written as templates to be introduced in any state legislature after state-specific details are inserted.

The Center for Media and Democracy traces ALEC’s direct involvement in 1990 with the birth of the Milwaukee school voucher program: “Decades ago, ALEC targeted Wisconsin as a test case for their agenda. Tommy Thompson, who served as a state legislator from 1966-1987 and then as governor for a record 14 years, was an early ALEC member and supporter… It is now apparent that Thompson was the enthusiastic frontman for a slew of ALEC ideas and legislation — most famously ‘Welfare to Work’ and ‘School Choice.’ In 1990, Milwaukee’s school voucher program for low-income children was the first in the nation, the camel’s nose under the tent for a long-term agenda with the ultimate goal being the privatization of public schools.”

In this week’s New Yorker piece, Jane Mayer mentions another player in this year’s attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election through the right-wing Maricopa County election audit: Shawnna Bolick.  Bolick is currently an Arizona state representative from Phoenix; she is also running for Arizona secretary of state.  Although Mayor doesn’t trace this history, Shawnna Bolick has family ties to the far-right promotion of school vouchers back in the 1990s.

Mayer leaves out the story of Shawnna Bolick’s husband, Clint Bolick.  In May of 2000, PBS Frontline produced a special on The Battle Over School Choice, which featured an interview with Clint Bolick, along with this introduction: “Bolick is a co-founder and Director of Litigation for the Washington D.C.-based Institute for Justice, begun in 1991 as the ‘nation’s only libertarian public interest law firm’ and as an alternative to the American Civil Liberties Union. The Institute for Justice represents parents and children in various legal cases across the country in support of school choice, including the Cleveland, Ohio lawsuit regarding a publicly funded scholarship program.”

In the interview, Clint Bolick explains: “We have been involved in the school choice battle since we opened our doors in 1991…. The very first court battle was in the spring of 1990, when the first school choice program was passed in Milwaukee. It was a tiny program that evoked a tremendous response from the educational bureaucracy, in the form of a lawsuit and an onslaught of regulations. We represented the parents and children defending the program and challenging the regulations.  And on the first day of school in the year 1990, we were successful.”

In that interview in 2000, Clint Bolick speculated that a case to overturn the “Cleveland Scholarship” voucher program would rise to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the spring of 2002, Bolick served as chief litigator in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, defending Ohio’s right to spend tax dollars for tuition vouchers to be used in private schools that include religious education. He argued that, “as long as a program gives parents the choice of where to send their kids and does not create any sort of financial incentive for them to do so,” vouchers do not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.  In June of 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of allowing the Cleveland Scholarship Plan to proceed.

Now in 2021, Shawnna Bolick, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation—along with many of the groups who have been recipients of Bradley Foundation grants—are working to undermine the democratic process itself by attacking what courts have already declared  to be a fair election in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Jane Mayor describes the troubling role of dark money: “It might seem improbable that a low-profile family foundation in Wisconsin has assumed a central role in current struggles over American democracy. But the modern conservative movement has depended on leveraging the fortunes of wealthy reactionaries.”

In his history of the American battle over protecting the right to public education, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black describes the fall of Reconstruction after 1876 as the period when states across the former Confederacy attacked the two institutions essential for democracy:  “The new constitutional agenda was two-pronged: disenfranchise black voters and segregate and underfund public schools.” (p. 139)  For the past three decades, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, ALEC, The Institute for Justice and their allies have been pursuing a similar attack on the same two institutions—the right to vote and the public schools that prepare children to become citizens—which the Founders understand as an essential foundation for democracy.

5 thoughts on “The Same People Now Trying to Undermine Democratic Elections Have Been Trying for 30 Years to Privatize Public Schools

  1. These “dark money” funded groups trying to destroy public education and our democracy, remind me of “The Golden Rule: them that has the gold, write the rules.” Or as my high school social studies teacher always used to say: “money talks, B.S. walks, and we are all running a close third.” We need to get money out of politics, limit campaign spending and time periods of campaigns, overturn Citizens United Supreme Court Decision by passing a law or Constitutional amendment, expose the “dark money” funders by passing a law to force the disclosure. Otherwise, our government and our country will be a government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich only. How much profit is enough for these greed addicts?

  2. Clint Bolick is quoted in the article, “He argued that, “as long as a program gives parents the choice of where to send their kids and does not create any sort of financial incentive for them to do so,” vouchers do not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.” The vouchers in Ohio created tremendous financial incentive for parents. So much so that the Orthodox community in Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district used the vouchers as an incentive for Orthodox families to move to those communities.

  3. A frightening example of a belief that our nature is to “game” any system if the stakes are high enough. We do it in business, in athetucs, in all kinds of “competitions”. In this case, where the money and the control stakes are huge, we see the behaviors and strategies that you described. These power/control oriented “leaders” continue to sacrifice the well-being of the many for the winning of the few. While the word may no longer be in favor, we continue to sacrifice morality for wealth. We are writing an ugy chapter in our country’s future history text books.

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