What Is at Stake when ALEC, the State Policy Network, The Buckeye Institute and EdChoice Lobby for Vouchers?

As we begin 2021, there has been troubling coverage about new voucher programs popping up in state legislatures. This is despite that Betsy DeVos is gone and that President Joseph Biden is a strong supporter of the institution of public schools. And in states like Indiana, and Ohio, where privatized school vouchers have been in place for decades, we can also watch pressure for their expansion.

Earlier this week, Bill Phillis, Ohio’s longest and best informed proponent of public schools and the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding, sent around a troubling article from the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette describing a bill being considered by the Indiana House Education Committee for the radical expansion of an already enormous publicly funded private school tuition voucher program in Indiana, Ohio’s neighbor:

“The proposed bill expands the $172 million a year voucher program to allow a family of four earning as much as $145,000 a year to qualify for vouchers. Median household income in Indiana is about $60,000 a year. The bill also eliminates income limits on the size of the voucher awards. Currently, a family of four earning up to $48,000 a year is limited to a voucher worth 90% of per-student state funding for the school corporation in which the family resides. At $60,000 a year in household income, the voucher drops to 70%. Four-person families earning up to $96,000 a year qualify for 50% of per-student funding. But HB 1005 drops the income tiers even as it raises income eligibility. A family of four earning up to $109,000 would qualify for a 90% voucher in 2021-22. In 2022-23, eligibility rises to $145,000 a year for a 90% voucher. That translates to millions of tax dollars to parents who do not choose public schools but can afford tuition for their children.”

The goal of voucher proponents in Indiana is clearly similar to Ohio State Senate President Matt Huffman’s dogged purpose in Ohio. In late November, Huffman pushed through without even a committee hearing a revamp of his primary project: expanding voucher accessibility to an ever increasing number of students across our state. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is always said to be the driver of voucher promotion nationwide.  In 2017, ALEC and another national far-right organization FreedomWorks made Matt Huffman their legislator of the week.

A nationwide right-wing bill mill, ALEC creates model bills, including bills for tax credit vouchers and education savings account vouchers, and sends its model bills into the 50 statehouses with the intention that at least in some places they will be enacted into state law. FreedomWorks defines itself: “FreedomWorks exists to build, educate, and mobilize the largest network of activists advocating the principles of smaller government, lower taxes, free markets, personal liberty and the rule of law.”

But ALEC and FreedomWorks are not the primary advocates testifying in in state legislatures for the launch of school vouchers—or in states like Indiana and Ohio, the expansion of school vouchers. In Indiana, the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation for EdChoice, now formally named EdChoice , describes its purpose: “EdChoice is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. Our team is driven by the shared mission to advance a K–12 education system where all families are free to choose a learning environment that works best for their children.” This is doubletalk for the idea of substituting universal school choice at public expense for a system of public schools.

In Ohio, aligned in purpose with EdChoice, is the Buckeye Institute, a nonprofit that actively and regularly floods the statehouse with lobbyists. In the area of education, the Buckeye Institute says its purpose is, “Giving all children the best education through school choice and returning local control to every community.”  And it announces a special priority: “Support education savings accounts for parents to personalize their children’s learning experience and save for college.”

EdChoice and the Buckeye Institute are both members of the State Policy Network (SPN), which SourceWatch describes as, “a web of right-wing ‘think tanks’ and tax-exempt organizations in 50 states (see this interactive map), Washington, D.C., Canada, and the United Kingdom. As of August 2020, SPN’s membership totals 162. Today’s SPN is the tip of the spear of (a) far-right, nationally funded policy agenda in the states that undergirds extremists in the Republican Party… SPN groups operate as the policy, communications, and litigation arm of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), giving the cookie-cutter ALEC agenda a sheen of academic legitimacy and state-based support.”

Where does the money behind this State Policy Network of organizations come from?  In a major 2013 investigation of the State Policy Network, SourceWatch reported that it is hard to know, because funding mostly flows through DonorsTrust and the Donors Capital Fund, dark money sources that do not name individual donors: “The largest known funder behind SPN and its member think tanks are two closely related funds—DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund… They are what are called ‘donor-advised funds,’ which means that the fund creates separate accounts for individual donors, and the donors then recommend disbursements from the accounts to different nonprofits. It cloaks the identity of the original mystery donors or makes it impossible to connect donors with recipients because the funds are then distributed in the name of DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund.”

SourceWatch has identified some major contributors in addition to DonorsTrust to the State Policy Network and its so-called “think tanks,” including the Walton Family Foundation: $1,725,000 (2014-2019); the Bradley Foundation: $1,570,000 (2014-2019); and the Sarah Scaife Foundation: $840,000 (2016-2018).

Unfortunately knowing about pro-voucher organizations and even some of the groups which are funding all this activity does not make it any easier to advocate against this kind of massive influence peddling for vouchers and tax credit vouchers and education savings account vouchers across our state legislatures. In an important new book, Schoolhouse Burning, constitutional law professor Derek Black explores the serious challenge posed by dark money and groups like ALEC, the State Policy Network, Ohio’s Buckeye Institute, and Indiana’s EdChoice. Derek Black believes the threat is greatest in the nation’s most vulnerable communities serving Black, Brown, and poor children:

“(T)he interests of those pulling the political and financial levers behind the scenes to expand charters and vouchers do not align with disadvantaged communities. Their goal, unlike that of minority communities, is not to ensure that each and every child, regardless of wealth, race, or religion, receives an equal and adequate educational opportunity. The powerful interests behind the scenes want a much different system of government than the one our founders put in our state and federal constitutions. Undermining public education is a big part of making that happen. Education, they say, is ‘the lowest hanging fruit for policy change in the United States today.’ In their minds, the scales of justice should tip away from mass democracy and the common good toward individualism and private property. That means less taxes, less government, less public education. While couched as more liberty, what they really mean is that government should let the chips fall where they may. It isn’t government’s job to ensure equal participation in democracy.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 19)

Derek Black believes those of us who are committed to public education must not merely be persistent in opposing all kinds of school privatization. We must also be prepared clearly to articulate why public schools are so important: “Public education represents a commitment to a nation in which a day laborer’s son can go to college, own a business, maybe even become president. It represents a nation in which every person has a stake in setting the rules by which society will govern itself, where the waitress’s children learn alongside of and break bread with the senator’s and the CEOs children. Public education represents a nation where people from many different countries, religions, and ethnic backgrounds come together as one for a common purpose around common values. We know that the idea has never been fully true in our schools, but we need to believe in that idea… The pursuit of that idea, both in fact and in mind, has long set us apart from the world….” (Schoolhouse Burning, p 250)

Attack on Public Employee Unions Is A Project of the Far Right

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers AssociationAdam Liptak of the NY Times explains what is at stake in this case: “Under California law, which is similar to ones in more than 20 other states, public employees who choose not to join unions must pay a ‘fair-share service fee,’ also known as an agency fee, which is typically equivalent to members’ dues.”  “Such fees are constitutional, the Supreme Court ruled in 1977 in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. ‘To compel employees financially to support their collective-bargaining representative has an impact upon their First Amendment interests,’ Justice Potter Stewart wrote for the majority.  But he wrote, ‘such interference as exists is constitutionally justified’ to prevent freeloading and to ensure ‘labor peace.'”

Richard Kahlenberg writing for the Century Foundation, explains what’s at stake in this case: “The current legal framework in which courts weigh cases such as Friedrichs is narrowly constrained, balancing the free speech rights of dissenting union members against the state’s interests in promoting stable labor relations with its public employees. In the 1977 case of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court reached a sensible compromise that properly balanced these two sets of interests by splitting union dues into two categories: those that support political speech, and those that support bread-and-butter collective bargaining.  Because the First Amendment’s free speech clause provides a right to not be compelled by the state to subsidize speech with which one disagrees, dissenting public employees cannot be required by the state to join a union, or to subsidize the union’s political and lobbying efforts to promote certain positions of public  concern.”  In Abood, “the Court held, the state may prevent employees from being ‘free riders’ by compelling contribution to that portion of union membership dues that underwrite the cost of collective bargaining over issues such as wages and benefits… Free speech rights are never absolute… For instance, the government may, in fact, compel taxation from an individual who is opposed to the war in Afghanistan, and then use those funds to engage in speech to recruit soldiers for the war effort. Free speech rights must always be balanced against other considerations.”

Certainly there is politics behind this lawsuit. Those behind the Friedrichs case are known to be allied with and funded by groups that seek to weaken teachers’ unions and reduce the public expense incurred by paying teachers fairly and offering health plans and pensions.  Here is Liptak in the NY Times: “‘In this era of broken municipal budgets and a national crisis in public education,’ a brief for the plaintiffs said, ‘it is difficult to imagine more politically charged issues than how much money local governments should devote to public employees, or what public policies public schools should adopt to best educate children.” With 3.2 million members, the National Education Association is the nation’s largest union, and opponents of collective bargaining view it as an important target.

Brian Mahoney, reporting for Politico, connects the dots directly between plaintiffs in Friedrichs and far-right funders who have sought for many years to undermine the right of public employees to organize: “The lawsuit… was brought by Rebecca Friedrichs and eight other California public school teachers who declined to join the union that represents them in collective bargaining.  But the lawsuit’s true author looks to be the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.”  For more than 25 years, Wisconsin’s Bradley Foundation has served as the primary funder for the development, promotion and expansion of the Milwaukee Voucher Program.  Mahoney continues: “The Bradley Foundation funds the Center for Individual Rights, the conservative D.C. nonprofit law firm that brought the case; it funds (or has funded) at least 11 organizations that submitted amicus briefs for the plaintiffs; and it’s funded a score of conservative organizations that support the lawsuit’s claim that the ‘fair-share fees’ nonmembers must pay are unconstitutional.”  Groups that have submitted amicus briefs supporting the plaintiffs the Friedrichs case—and that have received funding from the Bradley Foundation over the years—include the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Institute for Justice, the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.   Mahoney adds that the Bradley Foundation was significantly involved in political efforts that passed right-to-work laws in Michigan and Wisconsin. A spokesperson from the Center for Individual Rights told Mahoney that the Center for Individual Rights sought out the plaintiffs in this case; it wasn’t Rebecca Friedrichs and the other plaintiffs who themselves sought legal assistance to represent their rights.

Richard Kahlenberg reflects at length on the consequences for all of us if the Supreme Court reverses its 1977 Abood decision and affirms the Friedrichs plaintiffs: “All unions—including, and perhaps especially, public sector unions—also contribute to one of the most important foundational interests of the state: democracy.  And they do this in many different ways.  Unions are critical civic organizations that serve as a check on government power.  They are important players in promoting a strong middle class, upon which democracy depends.  They serve as schools of democracy for workers.  And teacher unions, in particular, help ensure that our educational system is sufficiently funded to teach children to become thoughtful and enlightened citizens in our self-governing democracy.”

Commentators, here and here, who observed the oral arguments yesterday predict that the Court is likely to split along ideological lines to overturn Abood and weaken the position of public employee unions.

Who Are the Philanthropic and Corporate Sponsors of Today’s School Deform?

I believe that our society’s provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—is essential for ensuring that all children are served, and I believe that a strong system of public education is essential as the foundation of our democracy.  In that context, I think it is important to write more about what I support—strong public schools—than what I oppose—the assault on public education by those who would privatize the education of our children primarily for the purpose of making a profit.

However, I don’t think we ought to be naive.  For this reason I sometimes like to look up the source of the money behind the school privatization movement as a discipline to keep myself informed.  In that spirit, let’s check on some of the foundations and corporations that sponsored Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education National Summit last week in Boston.

Foundations

The Grand Rapids, Michigan founders of Amway Products, Dick and Betsy DeVos, through their family foundation and Betsy’s organization, All Children Matter, are among the nation’s most persistent promoters of vouchers.  According to Think Progress, “In 2002, Dick DeVos sketched out a plan to undermine public education before the Heritage Foundation, explaining that education advocates should stop using the term ‘public schools’ and instead call them ‘government schools.'”

The Oberndorf Family Foundation devotes itself to school choice and privatization.  According to Think Progress, the Orerndorfs, whose money was earned through SPO Partners, an investment firm, have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past five years in school privatization: “Bill Oberndorf… said that the passage of the Indiana voucher law was the ‘gold standard’ for what should be done across America.”

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, has been a strong supporter of charter networks and the corporate school reform movement with grants to the New School Venture Fund, the Charter School Growth Fund, KIPP charter schools,  and Teach for America.  The Doris and Donald Fisher Fund is the philanthropy of the founders of The Gap.  According to the National Education Policy Center: “The Fishers were early supporters of Edison Schools, and have been major supporters of KIPP and Teach for America… the family also supported a young organization, The New Teacher Project, founded by Michelle Rhee. As noted on the Fisher’s 2011 Form 990, the foundation contributed $250,000 to Rhee’s newest organization, StudentsFirst.”

And there is the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the longest and most constant funder of school voucher efforts.  Bradley, a Milwaukee-based foundation, underwrote think tanks and astro-turf organizations behind the nation’s first school voucher program in Milwaukee.  The Wisconsin Center for Media and Democracy has closely tracked the far-right giving of the Bradley Foundation, and quotes a local newspaper investigation: “According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, ‘from 2001 to 2009, it [Bradley] doled out nearly as much money as the seven Koch and Scaife foundations combined.’”

Corporations

Here is Amplify, the school tablet and education data management division of Rupert Murdoch’s The News Corp.  Joel Klein, who revolved right out of his job as Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools to his position with the News Corp, worked with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to bring mass charterization, disruptive change through ongoing school closures, and school co-locations to New York City.  Microsoft is also a large contributor.  Jeb Bush has worked with many of the technology firms, including Microsoft, to promote “blended” learning that is said to save money for school districts if computers do some of the teaching and thereby permit larger class size.  Edgenuity, another sponsor, promotes blended learning and sells “blended” curricula that incorporate computers. Intel is another enormous ed-tech company.

Here among the sponsors are a number of corporations who supply standardized tests and grade the tests and manage the data around testing: Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Scantron.  Scholastic is selling educational materials to implement the Common Core Standards.   Renaissance Learning produces curricula aligned with the Common Core Standards.  The Education Testing Service, the manager of the Scholastic Aptitude Tests for decades, has also been prominent in the burgeoning K-12 standardized testing market.

Finally there is K12, the nation’s largest, for-profit, on-line charter school with affiliates across the states.  K12 brags about its huge enrollment, but cannot boast about its graduation rates and student achievement. This is the company about which hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson published a scathing critique a couple of weeks ago.