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)

Stunning New Report and Website Expose Connected State-by-State Web of Privatizers

As an advocate for public policy, I believe it is more important to know more about what I am for than about what I am against.  Let me begin by naming what I am for: public schools—universally available, publicly funded, and accountable to the public.  I also believe that our most important priority in the United States, as far as public education goes, is to improve—not punish—the public schools in the poorest neighborhoods of our big cities.  These are the places where many children live in neighborhoods where extreme poverty is concentrated.

But knowing about the forces on the other side of this highly polarized debate is also important, and this week a new website was launched to help with the task of learning more about the privatizers: stinktanks.org, a joint project of the Center for Media and Democracy (which also houses the valuable ALECExposed site) and ProgressNow.  The goal of stinktanks.org is to expose the State Policy Network (SPN), 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.

While these organizations have ties with the far-right American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and while they are actively promoting the same agenda, they are lesser known.  If you live in Ohio, you may have heard of the Buckeye Institute; if you live in Pennsylvania, you may know about the Commonwealth Foundation, or if you live in Michigan perhaps you have learned about the Mackinac Center, but you likely don’t realize how funding for all of these groups is connected to the same philanthropists, and how their interests are being pursued state by state by state. The new website features an interactive map of the states.  By clicking on any state, you’ll access a one page description of that state’s SPN member’s agenda and its funders. You will also find a more detailed report about a number of the state think tanks.

For example, if you have been paying attention to Michigan, you know that destroying workers’ rights, privatizing public schools, blocking healthcare, destroying public pensions, opposing minimum wage laws, and lowering corporate taxes is being pushed by Michigan’s governor and many in the legislature.  Perhaps you won’t be surprised then to discover that the Mackinac Center devotes itself to promoting this very agenda.

This week, to launch the new “stink tanks campaign,” The Center for Media and Democracy and AlecExposed.org released a stunning national report, Exposed: The State Policy Network—The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government.

Here you will learn more about the extensive role of the Koch Brothers and others in the secretive world of far-right funding.  “The largest known funders behind SPN and its member think tanks are two closely related funds—DonorTrust 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 non-profits.  It cloaks the identity of the original mystery donors or makes it impossible to connect donors with recipients…. For example, a relatively unknown Koch family foundation called the Knowledge and Progress Fund gave $4.5 million to DonorsTrust between 2007 and 2010, but what organizations received that funding from Donors is unknown.” (p. 18)

None of these state organizations focuses solely on privatizing education; they all pursue a complex agenda.  You will learn, however, that several of these groups have representatives on ALEC’s Education Task Force: the State Policy Network itself, the Goldwater Institute (AZ), the Pacific Research Institute (CA), the Independence Institute (CO), the James Madison Institute (FL), the Illinois Policy Institute, the Maine Heritage Policy Center, the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs, the Mackinac Center (MI), the John Locke Foundation (NC), and the Freedom Foundation ( MN).

The report describes the goal of the State Policy Network as creating an echo chamber across the states: “While SPN is a national organization with 63 affiliates and over 100 associate members, it remains a closely connected network.  It is not uncommon for think tank members to share board members, “scholars,” or staffers, nor is it uncommon for the think tanks to share research materials, coordinating their agenda and tailoring national research to fit into state-related politics.” (p. 9)

The report wonders how groups like like ALEC and these state advocacy organizations continue to operate as tax-exempt, 501C3 non-profits:  “Acknowledging the group’s political power, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin called the SPN member Idaho Freedom Foundation a ‘do’ tank.  Darcy Olsen, president and CEO of SPN member think tank the Goldwater Institute, told the National Review, ‘We’re in the business of applied policy.’ Applied policy appears to translate to changing state laws. Although most do not register lobbyists, many SPN members advance legislation through ALEC and outside of ALEC” (p. 13)