How Can Schools Be Voucherized? Let Us Count the Ways… and the Consequences

School privatization via vouchers has been endorsed by President Donald Trump. Private school vouchers are also a favorite cause of Vice President Mike Pence and the new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.  Most of us are not particularly familiar with vouchers in general because they have until now been a project of state governments. We are likely to know about what’s happening in our own state, but perhaps be unaware about trends across the states. Did you know, for example, that school vouchers are called by a number of names?

5 Names Politicians Use to Sell Private-School Voucher Schemes to Parents is a short resource that clarifies how all these programs work: “(V)ouchers divert taxpayer dollars away from public schools—starving them of the critical funding needed for students to thrive—only to use these funds to subsidize private and/or religious schools.  However, voucher proponents, like (Betsy) DeVos and politicians found in your state almost never call them vouchers. Instead, they attempt to mislead parents, taxpayers, and voters by re-branding these plots to drain and defund public education with some pleasant-sounding, flowery name plucked from the school-choice lexicon—Opportunity Scholarships—Parental Choice Scholarships—Tuition Tax Credits—Charitable Tax Credits—Education Savings Accounts.

NEA explains that Opportunity and Parental Choice Scholarships give parents public money to use for tuition (and sometimes transportation, fees, and equipment) at private and parochial schools.  Because these vouchers are insufficient to pay for tuition at a great many traditional private schools which charge as much as private colleges, vouchers are frequently used by parents of students at religious schools.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the only federally funded voucher scholarship program is the one in the District of Columbia. Congress has never been able to muster the support to enact vouchers federally—only in Washington, D.C. where, perhaps not coincidentally, the residents lack a voting Congressional representative. Vouchers, which began in Milwaukee back in 1989, have grown steadily as statehouses have tipped toward domination by the far right. Today, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states plus the District of Columbia have plain old voucher (scholarship) programs in which students are given a publicly funded coupon to cover tuition at a private or parochial school: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wisconsin, along with Maine and Vermont which have both had longstanding tax scholarship programs for children in isolated rural areas lacking public school districts.

Tuition Tax Credits are also a kind of vouchers. Here is how David Berliner and Gene Glass define tuition tax credits in their book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: “There are tax credits and then there are tax deductions. They are very different things. Suppose you and your spouse have an income of $100,000…. And suppose that the federal income taxes you owe… amount to about $25,000 a year. If you take a tax deduction for your contribution of $1,000 to the Red Cross, that will reduce your tax indebtedness by about $250. Not so with tax credits… If you and your spouse live in a state with a state income tax (and a tuition tax credit program)… then you can direct $1,000, say, of your state income tax to the My-Pet-Project fund, and your state income tax indebtedness will be reduced by the full $1,000.” (p. 188) For parents in states with tuition tax credits, the pet project is the education of their own children, but some states also have broader Charitable Tax Credits for education—tuition tax credit programs that allow individuals and corporations to contribute to state school tuition organizations that then make scholarship grants to students to pay for their tuition at private schools.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of December 2016, 17 states offered different types of tuition tax credits: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota and Virginia.

The National Education Association defines another—the newest—kind of vouchers: Education Savings Accounts: “Education Savings Accounts (ESA) are the latest trend in publicly subsidized private school education… (T)he common factor is that these programs pay parents all or a large portion of the money the state would otherwise have spent to educate their children in exchange for an agreement to forego their right to a public education. Funds deposited into such accounts may be used for any number of expenses, including private school tuition, fees, textbooks; tutoring and test prep; homeschooling curriculum and supplemental materials; special instruction and therapeutic services; transportation; and management fees. These programs also permit parents to roll over unused funds for use in subsequent years and to invest a portion of the funds into college savings plans.” In Education Savings Account voucher plans, the state itself deposits funds in parents’ accounts, and the parents can shop around for particular services, perhaps split among a number of vendors.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as December 2016, only 5 states had such programs—Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee, though Nevada’s program is on hold because the state supreme court found its funding system unconstitutional.

Vouchers of all forms have arrived in the 50 state capitols in the form of bills cooked up elsewhere and then introduced by sympathetic legislators who are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC, a membership organization, pairs member state legislators with corporate lobbyist members and with members who represent special interests—in the case of vouchers, the ideologues from the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s organization), and the Friedman Foundation, now called EdChoice—to create model laws that can then be handed to member state legislators to be introduced in any state. ALEC is often dubbed a bill mill.  ALEC’s model bills for various kinds of vouchers include a Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, The Foster Child Scholarship Program Act, Opportunity Scholarships, the Smart Start Scholarship Program, the Education Savings Account Act, and the Great Schools Tax Credit Act.

Here is Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, in a recent column commenting on what vouchers do to public school funding. This time the example is Mike Pence’s home state, Indiana: “Vouchers drain state tax dollars, creating deficits, or the need for tax increases. When Indiana started its voucher program, it claimed it would save taxpayers money. Not only did that not happen, the state’s education budget is now in deficit, and the millions shelled out for vouchers grows each year. Last year, vouchers cost the taxpayers of Indiana $131.5 million as caps and income levels were raised. Indiana now gives vouchers to families with incomes as high as $90,000 and to students who never attended a public school.” Burris adds that while the program was passed, “promising that it would help poor and lower-middle class families find schools they like for their children… as it turned out, five years after it began, more than half of the state’s voucher recipients have never attended Indiana public schools and many vouchers are going to wealthier families, those earning up to $90,000 for a household of four.”

Last week, writing for the Los Angeles Times, Milwaukee journalist, Barbara Miner shared her insights after observing the Milwaukee voucher program since its beginning: “For more than a quarter-century, I have reported on the voucher program in Milwaukee: the country’s first contemporary voucher initiative and a model for other cities and state programs, from Cleveland to New Orleans, Florida to Indiana.  Milwaukee’s program began in 1990, when the state Legislature passed a bill allowing 300 students in seven nonsectarian private schools to receive taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers. It was billed as a small, low-cost experiment to help poor black children, and had a five-year sunset clause. That was the bait. The first ‘switch’ came a few weeks later, when the Republican governor eliminated the sunset clause. Ever since, vouchers have been a divisive yet permanent fixture in Wisconsin.” “Since 1990, roughly $2 billion in public money has been funneled into private and religious schools in Wisconsin, and the payments keep escalating.” “Today, some 33,000 students in 212 schools receive publicly funded vouchers, not just in Milwaukee but throughout Wisconsin. If it were its own school district, the voucher program would be the state’s second largest. The overwhelming majority of the schools are religious.”

A serious problem, reports Miner, is that voucher schools are not required to protect the civil rights of their students, including the rights guaranteed by federal law in all public schools: “Because they are defined as ‘private,’ voucher schools operate by separate rules, with minimal public oversight or transparency. They can sidestep basic constitutional protections such as freedom of speech. They do not have to provide the same level of second-language or special-education services. They can suspend or expel students without legal due process. They can ignore the state’s requirements for open meetings and records. They can disregard state law prohibiting discrimination against students on grounds of sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, or marital or parental status.”

Miner warns, “Wisconsin has sunk so deep into this unaccountable world that our voucher program not only turns a blind eye toward discrimination in voucher schools, it forces the public to pay for such discrimination… Privatizing an essential public function and forcing the public to pay for it, even while removing it from meaningful public oversight, weakens our democracy.”

Recent Important Coverage of Betsy DeVos, Part 2

After today, this blog will begin a two-week holiday break. Look for a new post on Tuesday, January 3, 2017.  Good wishes for the holidays!

Here is the second half of a two-part post—yesterday and today—to summarize recent news coverage about Betsy DeVos

You may feel you already know enough about Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. You may be disgusted that a one-cause activist and philanthropist has been appointed for an important federal position that oversees, for example, civil rights protection for children across America’s public schools, especially as her one cause has been the expansion of school vouchers—public dollars children can carry to private and parochial schools. Maybe you’ve already learned enough to be furious that yet another billionaire from the One Percent will be shaping federal policy for the schools that serve the 99 Percent. Maybe you are angry about DeVos’s lack of experience in education—and especially the schools operated by and for the public. Betsy DeVos graduated from Holland Christian High School and, as columnist Wendy Lecker has explained: “(S)he is wholly unqualified to be Secretary of Education. She has no education degree or background, and has never worked in, attended or sent her children to public school.”

But this two-part blog will help fill in any gaps in your understanding.  During DeVos’s confirmation hearing, and later, if she is confirmed and as her policy proposals roll out, you’ll have the facts at your fingertips as contributions to any and every conversation.  News reporting on DeVos this week has been particularly interesting, as newspapers have been assigning reporters to investigate in depth DeVos’s advocacy to reduce regulation of marketplace school choice, the influence of her religious beliefs, her partners and allies in the sphere of school choice advocacy, and the way in which DeVos’s ideologically driven philanthropy fits right in to the work of the Waltons, the Broads, and the Gates, although DeVos is far more driven by far-right anti-government, pro-voucher ideology.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the New York University education historian Diane Ravitch coined the term “The Billionaire Boys Club” to describe a new wave of mega-philanthropy—no longer responsive to the ideas of a range of grant seekers but instead driven by the strategies of foundation boards and staffs—and geared not simply to meeting the funding needs of supplicant nonprofits but instead to influencing the direction of policy.  In that book Ravitch warned: “Before considering the specific goals and activities of these foundations, it is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations. There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions. These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state… If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.  They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (pp. 200-201)

Now Ravitch has published an opinion piece for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Blame Big Foundations for Assault on Public Education, to explain how the Billionaire Boys have paved the way for the appointment of another— and this time more radical—philanthropist, Betsy DeVos to run the U.S. Department of Education. (The article is paywalled in The Chronicle, but Ravitch has provided a copy on her personal blog.)

In her new piece, Ravitch reviews the membership of the original Billionaire Boys Club and demonstrates its influence: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation have promoted charter schools and school choice for the past decade. They laid the groundwork for extremist attacks on public schools. They legitimized taxpayer subsidies for privately managed charters and for ‘school choice,’ which paved the way for vouchers. (Indeed, as foundations spawned thousands of charter schools in the past decade, nearly half of the states endorsed voucher programs.) At least a dozen more foundations have joined the Big Three, including the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund.”  While Betsy DeVos’s philanthropic priorities are much farther to the right, Ravitch argues that the more centrist foundations have normalized school choice through their donations and as program officers from the Gates Foundation were brought in as key staff at Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education.

Ravitch argues that, working in concert, these foundations and their philanthropic gifts have shifted the broader conversation to normalize what has become known as “corporate school reform” and to promote school choice.  They have also created and funded think tanks to justify this work and created  a concerted messaging campaign to favor their agenda; “For years these groups have argued that, one, public schools are ‘failing’; two, we must save poor children from these failing schools; three, they are failing because of bad teachers; four, anyone with a few weeks of training can teach as well, or better.  It’s a simple, easily digestible narrative, and it’s wrong.”

I urge you to read Ravitch’s critique and refutation of the mega-philanthropists’ agenda.  As Trump has nominated Betsy DeVos to move the privatization agenda deeper and farther to the right, Ravitch reminds readers about something that none of today’s mega-foundations seems to be promoting: “(U)niversal public education under democratic control has long been one of the hallmarks of our democracy. No high-performing nation in the world has turned its public schools over to the free market.”

Because, as Ravitch points out, Betsy DeVos’s experience is in far-right philanthropy, it might be expected that she’ll bring staff people with whom she is comfortable to run the U.S. Department of Education.  And this week, Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s most experienced reporter on federal education policy, has explored that very topic: Who Is Part of Ed.Sec. Nominee Betsy DeVos’ Policy Circle?  “After all,” begins Klein, “she and Trump have about 150 political appointee gigs to fill at the agency. In filling posts…. DeVos could decide to draw from a deep pool of folks she has worked with in education advocacy and political offices, including at the American Federation for Children, a political and advocacy organization she chaired until recently.  Many of them have ties to her home state of Michigan, including Josh Venable, a one-time aide to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is said to be helping with the transition. Like DeVos, they’ve been active in Republican politics, especially, and school choice  Also like DeVos, most haven’t served in state education agencies or school districts, at least not in recent years.” Venable has served as national director of advocacy and legislation for Jeb Bush’s pro-privatization Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Klein suspects that the DeVos-founded American Federation for Children will be sending several staff people to Washington to work in the U.S. Department of Education. What sort of experience would they bring?  “Over the past five years AFC has advanced school choice in a number of states, including Indiana, Nevada and Wisconsin…. The organization writes model legislation to help state lawmakers push vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax credits for school choice.”

Klein speculates that Greg Brock, executive director of AFC might be tapped.  For several years between 2000 and 2010, “Brock ran All Children Matter, a political action committee financed by DeVos and her husband, Richard ‘Dick’ DeVos.  The committee sought to elect lawmakers who were friendly to school choice, and target those who weren’t, including anti-voucher Republicans… Brock was also the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project,” the Michigan organization that has promoted charter schools and blocked state laws to regulate charters.  Other American Federation for Children staff described by Klein are Matt Frendewey, AFC’s communications director, and John Schilling, AFC’s chief operating officer.

Another DeVos insider, Greg MeNeilly, is currently chief operating officer of the Windquest Group, a company owned by the DeVoses.  “McNeilly has a long record both in GOP politics and with the DeVos family. He served as the campaign manager for Dick DeVos’ ultimately unsuccessful bid for governor of Michigan in 2006. And he was an architect of Michigan’s Right to Work law…. On the education front, he was the communications director of ‘Kids First! Yes!’ And from 1998 to 2000 he served as a political director for the Michigan Republican Party. He’s also currently on the board of GLEP (Great Lakes Education Project)…. (H)e’s known as an unofficial gatekeeper to Betsy and Dick DeVos.”

Klein also mentions Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor and driver of a national campaign to eliminate due-process job protection for school teachers and undermine teachers unions. Quite recently Campbell Brown launched what she claims is an objective education news website, The 74. Given Cambell Brown’s well-known biases, it is difficult to take seriously her claim of journalistic objectivity. About Campbell Brown, Alyson Klein notes: “She did however, write a warm blog post in support of DeVos’ nomination.”

Finally, to sum up the basic profile of Betsy DeVos, we can turn to Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker: Betsy DeVos and the Plan to Break Public Schools. “DeVos lobbied for school-choice voucher programs and tax-credit initiatives, intended to widen the range of institutions—including private and religious—that could receive funding that might otherwise go to both charter and traditional public schools… One can fully credit DeVos’s commitment to her cause—one might even term it her crusade—while also seeking to evaluate its effectiveness… Almost two-thirds of the state’s (Michigan’s) charter schools are run by for-profit management companies, which are not required to make the financial disclosures that would be expected of not-for-profit or public entities… And, despite the rhetoric of ‘choice,’ lower-income students were effectively segregated into poorer-performing schools, while parents of more privileged students were better equipped to navigate the system.”

Mead reminds us: “Missing in the ideological embrace of choice for choice’s sake is any suggestion of the public school as a public good—as a centering locus for a community and as a shared pillar of the commonweal, in which all citizens have an investment… In one interview… DeVos spoke in favor of ‘charter schools, online schools, virtual schools, blended learning, any combination thereof—and, frankly, any combination or any kind of choice that hasn’t yet been thought of.’ A preemptive embrace of choices that haven’t yet been thought of might serve as an apt characterization of Trump’s entire, chaotic cabinet-selection process. But whether it is the approach that will best serve current and prospective American school students is another question entirely.”

This blog has covered Betsy DeVos in previous posts:

Important Reading on Betsy DeVos

Today’s post is an update—some new tidbits and clarifications about the record of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education.

Jennifer Berkshire on Betsy DeVos 

I encourage you to read Jennifer Berkshire’s fascinating commentary on Betsy DeVos’s role in the mess created by an out-of-control charter sector in Detroit. Berkshire explains how DeVos’ influence and money undermined a bipartisan effort to save the Detroit Public Schools: “It was out of… (a) spirit of hopefulness that the Coalition for the Future of Detroit’s Schoolchildren emerged back in 2014.  And it was a for real coalition.  AFT was there, but so was the (corporate) reform-minded Excellent Schools Detroit and the city’s pro-charter mayor, along with members of the corporate and civic elite.  People who’d been, if not at war, at deep odds, had finally gotten together around a single, shared point of agreement: if Detroit doesn’t have some way to oversee its schools—both what remains of the district schools and the fast-growing, completely unregulated charter sector—the city can forget about the future.  Bankrolled by a local philanthropy, the Skillman Foundation, the coalition had the wind at its back and the political wherewithal necessary to get a bill through the state senate, even gaining the support of Governor Rick Snyder…. But the feel-good story screeched to a halt last summer thanks to a wall of GOP opposition.  Except that “wall” and “opposition’ make it sound as though there were a whole bunch of people involved in the kneecaping that went down.  There was a single family: Betsy and Dick DeVos.  The bill that ultimately passed, with the DeVos’ blessing and with the aid of the lawmakers they bankroll, did virtually nothing to regulate Detroit’s ‘wild west’ charter school sector, and will likely hasten the demise of the Detroit Public Schools.”

DeVos PAC Still owes Ohio $5.3 Million Fine

The Columbus Dispatch and Politico have now clarified the role of All Children Matter, a PAC that favored school privatization and that was founded in 2003 by Dick and Betsy DeVos and formerly directed by Betsy DeVos—in a huge fine still owed to the Ohio Elections Commission after a 2006 violation. Here is Randy Ludlow for The Dispatch:  “The Ohio Elections Commission unanimously ruled that All Children Matter violated state law by illegally channeling $870,000 in contributions from its Virginia PAC to its then-unregistered Ohio PAC, violating a state law that restricts political action committees to accepting  no more than $10,000 from a single source… David Brennan of Akron, one of Ohio’s top charter-school operators and a top state GOP donor, gave $200,000 to the Virginia PAC before it funneled money to All Children Matter’s Ohio PAC.  Virginia imposed no limit on contributions to PACs.”

Politico describes what happened: “The state (elections) commission told POLITICO that DeVos’ group initially asked Ohio if this sort of spending was permissible.  When the state said no, DeVos’ group did it anyway. ‘I’ve been with the commission since 1996 and I’ve never had anyone else ask for an adivisory opinion and then proceed to not do what the opinion said,’ said Philip Richter, executive director and staff attorney at the Ohio Elections Commission.”

All Children Matter lost when it appealed the decision. Finally Ohio’s attorney general, “went to court in 2012 in a bid to collect the fine, receiving a $5.2 million judgment in 2013 from Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Daniel T. Hogan.”  Hogan also fined All Children Matter’s Virginia PAC $25 a day, retroactive to October 26, 2006. The Dispatch and Politico agree that All Children Matter seems to be fading away and has inadequate assets to pay the fine.  At the end of 2015, the organization had only $275 in assets.  Betsy DeVos was never held personally liable.

Campbell Brown Says Her News Website Will Provide Objective Coverage of Her Good Friend, Betsy DeVos

Caitlin Emma reports for Politico Morning Education that Campbell Brown, the anti-teachers union crusader, will recuse herself from covering her friend Betsy DeVos on The 74, Brown’s website that pretends to be an objective news-reporting site on topics relating to education.

Emma explains: “Brown and DeVos are friends, and Brown sits on the board of DeVos’ school choice advocacy group, the American Federation for Children.  (DeVos resigned as chair [of the American Federation of Children] last week after accepting Trump’s Cabinet offer.)  In 2014, the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation helped launch The 74 with a two-year grant—the amount of which wasn’t disclosed to Morning Education.”

Since President-elect Trump’s nomination of DeVos, The 74‘s coverage of Betsy DeVos has been largely positive.  Despite a more complex piece by Michael Petrilli, The 74‘s has printed a laudatory 2015 interview with DeVos and Campbell Brown’s own gushing commentary: “Social media attacks aren’t famous for accuracy, but it’s a pity that Betsy DeVos has been so misleadingly caricatured since Donald Trump asked her to serve as secretary of education last week… The suggestion that Betsy’s work with children is ideologically or financially driven would be disputed, I’d guess, by just about everyone who has spent time alongside her during the past 30 years as she founded, helped run and advised education groups and initiatives that have helped improve education across the country — including thousands of teachers and poor families.”  You’ll notice that the sole purpose of DeVos’s education work—privatization— is unmentioned in Brown’s effusive tribute to her friend.

Writing for Education Week, Mark Walsh comments: “The 74, the website founded by former TV journalist Campbell Brown, is in an awkward position when it comes to the site’s identity. Is it an independent education news and opinion site, as Brown, herself a supporter of school choice and teacher tenure reform, has maintained, or is it an electronic pamphleteer for DeVos and her causes?”  Walsh acknowledges that articles about DeVos posted at The 74 have contained disclaimers explaining DeVos’s financial connections and the fact that Campbell Brown serves on the board of the American Federation for Children, but despite the disclaimers, worries remain.

Yesterday Romy Drucker, CEO of The 74, tried to clarify further in a formal statement posted on The 74 website: “Two years ago, in 2014, the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation approved a two-year general operating support grant for The 74.  The final disbursement of those funds, in the first quarter of 2016, means that the foundation is an active donor only through the end of this year. Obviously, given Ms. DeVos’s potential role in the federal government, The 74 will not be seeking additional funding for 2017 or beyond.  In addition to The 74 having received support from the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation, my co-founder and the site’s editor-in-chief, Campbell Brown, sits on the board of the American Federation for Children, which Betsy DeVos previously chaired… Still, given Ms. Brown’s close ties to Ms. DeVos, she is recusing herself from editorial involvement in the coverage of Ms. DeVos and her upcoming confirmation hearing.”

This is, of course, a case of DeVos philanthropy not only underwriting the pro-privatization American Federation for Children and the Great Lakes Education Project, which has lobbied for unregulated expansion of charter schools, but also granting the seed money for Campbell Brown to launch a news outlet that in subtle and obvious ways favors the very same education ideas that Betsy DeVos’s organizations promote—even while the news site pretends to be objective.

ALEC Relentlessly Cashes in on Kids and their Public Schools

The Chicago and Detroit and Philadelphia school districts are out of money due to political fights in their statehouses. Privatization through charters and vouchers continues to grow.  States adhere to the supply-side theory that prescribes radical tax cutting as the only way to attract jobs and grow the economy.  States rank and rate school districts and create policies that explain low achievement in the very poorest districts by castigating the schools and blaming the teachers.  I hope those of us who know better will stay informed, get organized, and continue to lift our voices, because the forces on the other side have constructed and funded an institutional framework to ensure that their policies get enacted by the legislatures across the states.  And as more and more states have school vouchers, for example, that give tax dollars to families to fund private and parochial schools, vouchers become normalized in the public’s mind and the idea that something is wrong with public education becomes normalized as well.  It is unsettling that none of this is being probed in the ongoing political campaigns for President.

This coherent, calculated effort to undermine government and promote privatization—being rolled out through “model” laws that can be adopted by any state legislature—is underwritten by corporations along with some of our nation’s wealthiest political investors, and it pairs state legislators with corporations that stand to gain from legislation their lobbyists help design.  It is called ALEC—the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Here is how New York’s Common Cause described ALEC in a report last year: “Through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), some of the nation’s largest companies invest millions of dollars each year to pass state laws putting corporate and private interests ahead of the interests of ordinary Americans. ALEC’s membership includes some 2,000 state legislators, corporate executives and lobbyists.  ALEC brings together corporate lobbyists and state legislators to vote as equals on model bills, behind closed doors and without any public input, that often benefit the corporations’ bottom line.  These model bills are then introduced in the state legislatures across the country….”  Some people have described ALEC as a dating service that pairs corporate lobbyists and state legislators. Too often the corporate lobbyists are the primary authors of ALEC’s model bills.

Is your state legislature considering passing Right to Work legislation to destroy the right of workers to unionize?  One of ALEC’s model bills is the “Right to Work Act.”  Here are titles of just some of ALEC’s other model bills: “The Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act” (tuition tax credits are a kind of school voucher); “Public Charter School Operations and Autonomy Model Legislation”; “The Virtual Pubic Schools Act”; “The Charter Schools Act”; “The Special Needs Scholarship Program Act” (another voucher plan);  “Public Charter School Funding and Facilities Model Legislation”; “Education Savings Account Act”; “The Next Generation Charter Schools Act”; “Alternative Certification Act”; and the “Parent Trigger Act.”

The Center for Media and Democracy and its PR Watch and its ALEC Exposed project have set out to demonstrate how ALEC operates across the states.  Here is how PR Watch’s Brendan Fischer describes ALEC’s activity during 2015: “Despite widespread public opposition to the corporate-driven education privatization agenda, at least 172 measures reflecting American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) model bills were introduced in 42 states in 2015… ALEC’s education task force has pushed legislation for decades to privatize public schools, weaken teacher’s unions and lower teaching standards.  ALEC’s agenda would transform public education from a public and accountable institution that serves the public into one that serves private, for-profit interests.  ALEC model bills divert taxpayer money from public to private schools through a variety of ‘voucher’ and ‘tuition tax credit’ programs.  They promote unaccountable charter schools and shift power away from democratically elected local school boards.”

ALEC’s model bills use a number of strategies to push an idea like vouchers forward.  Many of them seem targeted to very small groups of students, and they are usually not called “vouchers.” ALEC’s bills don’t always get passed, but legislative members of ALEC are relentless about keeping the legislative conversation focused on ALEC’s priorities. Here is how Fischer describes various voucher bills introduced across state legislatures in 2015: “ALEC has cooked up a variety of means of gaining ground on school privatization…. A handful of ALEC bills claim to offer ‘scholarships’ for sympathetic populations—like students with disabilities or foster kids—but are actually targeted voucher programs….  One ALEC bill, the Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, carves out vouchers for students with special needs, regardless of family income.  Nine states—Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, New York, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island—considered similar legislation in 2015…. Another ALEC bill, The Foster Child Scholarship Program Act, would create a voucher program specifically for children in foster care, and was introduced in Missouri.  ‘Opportunity Scholarships,’ introduced in four states—Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, and New Mexico—earmark vouchers for students in schools deemed ‘failing.'”

Once smaller bills are passed, there are relentless efforts to expand them.  The original Milwaukee voucher program, passed in the 1990s, was promoted to support access to private and parochial schools for Milwaukee’s poorest children.  Now under Governor Scott Walker, vouchers have been expanded statewide and the income requirement allows families with income above the statewide median to qualify.

Here is how Fischer describes the Center for Media and Democracy’s methodology in preparing its recent report: “CMD reviewed thousands of bills introduced in state legislatures in 2015 to assess whether they contained language consistent with ALEC bills.  In determining that there were at least 172 ALEC models within state bills—that is, bills containing key provisions consistent with ALEC’s legislative agenda—CMD examined both stand-alone and omnibus measures.”  At the end of his report, Fischer lists the bills state-by-state and identifies those that passed.

According to Fischer’s report on ALEC’s 2015 activity, it isn’t only corporations that fund ALEC by paying corporate dues for their lobbyists: “One of ALEC’s biggest funders is Koch Industries…. The Kochs have had a seat at the table—where the private sector votes as equals with legislators—on ALEC’s education task force via their ‘grassroots’ group Americans for Prosperity and their Freedom Partners group…. The Kochs also have a voice on ALEC’s Education Task Force through multiple state-based think tanks of the State Policy Network, ALEC’s sister organization, which is funded by many of the same corporations and foundations and donor entities.”  The State Policy Network includes such far-right state think tanks as the Buckeye Institute in Ohio, the Mackinac Center in Michigan, and the John Locke Institute in North Carolina.  Fischer describes additional ALEC allies including Dick and Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children and its affiliate the Alliance for School Choice and the relentless Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee that “has spent more than $31 million promoting ‘school choice’ nationwide between 2001 and 2012.”

One huge irony is that the Internal Revenue Service considers ALEC a tax-exempt, educational nonprofit instead of classifying it as a lobbying organization.  In 2012, Common Cause filed an IRS complaint to challenge ALEC’s status.  As the NY Times reported in Conservative Nonprofit Acts as a Stealth Business Lobbyist, ALEC defended itself by arguing, “that it provides a forum for lawmakers to network and to hear from constituencies that share an interest in promoting free-market, limited-government policies.  Lobbying laws differ by state, and ALEC maintains that if any of its members’ interactions with one another happen to qualify as lobbying in a particular state, that does not mean ALEC, as an organization, lobbies.”  The NY Times report continues: “ALEC, which is registered as a public charity under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, traces its roots to 1973, when the conservative activist Paul M. Weyrich and several other Republicans sought to create a state-level clearinghouse for conservative ideas.  Although its board is made up of legislators, who pay $50 a year to belong, ALEC is primarily financed by more than 200 private-sector members whose annual dues of $7,000 to $25,000 accounted for most of its $7 million budget in 2010.”

“Social Welfare Agencies” Spending Millions to Push Privatization of Education

While states continue to spend less money on public education than they did in 2007 prior to the Great Recession, lots of people are spending lavishly to promote what is frequently called the corporate school reform movement that features various forms of privatization. It is virtually impossible to follow and master all the details of what is happening.  Every once in awhile, however, this blog highlights some examples of the ways money is being spent to buy the policies that shape the education of our children.  This is one of those posts.

The recent and startlingly lavish publicity campaign against New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s effort to reign in the excesses of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s favored charter schools is a good place to start. Yesterday the New York Daily News reported that in the past three weeks a not-for-profit organization called Families for Excellent Schools has spent $3.6 million airing TV ads that attack Mayor de Blasio for denying Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools the right to co-locate three schools into public school facilities in New York City.  Mayor de Blasio had granted co-location rights to the majority of Moskowitz’s schools that applied for free space, but denied these three because they would endanger very young children by placing them with much older students in high schools or would infringe on the rights of students with disabilities by taking the rooms used for physical therapy and other special services.  To provide a little context, the Daily News reporter described the $3.6 million add buy: “the amount candidates typically spend in three weeks of a heated mayoral primary.”

So… what is Families for Excellent Schools and who are its financial supporters?  In March 2014, Robert Lewis, of WNYC News, reported: “Families for Excellent Schools’ most recent tax filings are from 2012, so it’s unclear how much they’ve raised in recent years or where that money is coming from.  The organization is technically two entities—a standard charity and a tax exempt group that can accept anonymous contributions for advocacy.”  Managed by the 27-year-old Jeremiah Kittredge, Families for Excellent Schools shares an address with New York’s affiliate of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst.  According to Zoe Carpenter, writing for The Nation,  Families for Excellent Schools is chaired by a venture capitalist named Paul Applebaum, although its website lists neither its board members nor its funders.  Stu Loeser, former spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is now the organization’s press official.  Lewis reports that Students for Excellent Schools  has received grant funding from the Walton and Broad Foundations, although from the organization’s website one can discern neither what its standard charity functions are nor how the organization’s money is allocated for charity and advocacy.

New York City is not the only place where big money is being used for political advocacy and where the donors of that money are hidden today by the tax code.  Thomas Edsall, writing for the NY Times, explains: “The explosion in secret financing of political advertising has turned tax-exempt nonprofit organizations into the weapon of choice for those who want to influence elections without leaving fingerprints.  Campaign spending by these groups, which do not disclose donors, has grown from a modest $5.8 million in the 2003-4 election cycle to $310.8 million in 2011-2012, an increase of more than 5000 percent with further growth expected in 2014 and 2016…  Most of the money raised from undisclosed contributors flows through nonprofits claiming tax-exempt status under Section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code…. The most common tax-exempt organizations are 501(c)(4) “social welfare” groups, although there is also substantial political cash channeled through 501(c)(6) groups, which are nonprofit trade associations like the United States Chamber of Commerce.”

Writing for The Center for Public Integrity, Rachel Baye traces the role of secretive big-money donations to so-called “social welfare” groups that support privatization of education and that are not required to report their donors:  “StudentsFirst—created by former Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee—is leading a new wave of ‘education reform’ organizations, funded largely by wealthy donors, that are challenging teachers’ unions and supporting mostly conservative candidates up and down the ticket in dozens of states…  Among the biggest spenders: the American Federation for Children, 50CAN, Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform… They have been funded by a slew of billionaire donors, like philanthropist Eli Broad, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hedge fund manager Dan Loeb and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.  However, the full list of funders opening their checkbooks for the education reformers remains a mystery since StudentsFirst and many of the other groups are so called social welfare nonprofit organizations, which fall under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S, tax code.”

This blog explored a new web campaign, Stinktanks.org, from Wisconsin’s Center for Media and Democracy—a campaign designed to expose the quiet linkage through an organization called the State Policy Network, of a tightly connected web of think tanks across the states that are being funded by far-right ideologues with the purpose of promoting privatization and unfettered free markets, and undermining government, regulation and the public good. Many of the state think tanks described by Stinktanks.org and the State Policy Network itself are promoting privatization of public education.  Once again in many instances, the donors are shielded by the tax code.

Rachel Baye quotes University of Wisconsin professor Michael Apple’s explanation of why so many powerful people are donating to the “social welfare” 501(c)(4) agencies that are investing in the political campaigns of local school board candidates and state legislators who seek to  privatize public education: “‘If you look at Broad, Bloomberg, they’re in favor of strong mayoral control of education.  Some of it is also this belief that the corporate sector is the last remaining set of institutions that form the engine of our society.’ But changing the way public education functions also opens windows for private corporations and individuals to make a profit, which is likely a factor in at least some donor’s decisions to open their wallets, he said.”

Potential for profits is huge, according to Baye: “In 2002, the education sector spent an estimated $146 million on technology.  By 2011, that number was estimated at $428 million…”