This rapid expansion of voucher programs — which undermine and undercut public education by funnelling taxpayer money to private schools — is remarkable. After all, vouchers have been unpopular with the American public. Between 1966 and 2000, vouchers were put up for a vote in states 25 times, and voters rejected the program 24 of those times.
Yet if one looks behind the curtain — at the foundations, non-profits, Political Action Committees (PAC) — into the workings of the voucher movement, it’s apparent why it has gained strength in recent years. A tight-knit group of right-wing millionaires and billionaires, bankers, industrialists, lobby shops, and hardcore ideologues has been plotting this war on public education, quietly setting up front group after front group to promote the idea that the only way to save public education is to destroy it — disguising their movement with the innocent-sounding moniker of “school choice.”
ThinkProgress has prepared this report to expose this network and give Americans the knowledge they need to fight back against this assault on the nation’s public schools. Here are some of the top millionaires and their organizations waging war on our education system:
— Dick DeVos: The DeVos family has been active on education issues since the 1990’s. The son of billionaire Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, Sr., DeVos unsuccessfully ran for governor of the state of Michigan, spending $40 million, the most ever spent in a gubernatorial race in the state. 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.” He has poured millions of dollars into right-wing causes, including providing hundreds of thousands of dollars into seed money for numerous “school choice” groups, including Utah’s Parents for Choice in Education, which used its PAC money to elect pro-voucher politicians.
— Betsy DeVos: The wife of Dick DeVos, she also coincidentally happens to be the sister of Erik Prince, the leader of Xe, the mercenary outfit formerly known as Blackwater and is a former chair of the Republican Party of Michigan. Mrs. DeVos has been much more aggressive than her husband, pouring her millions into numerous voucher front groups across the country. She launched the pro-voucher group All Children Matter in 2003, which spent $7.6 million in its first year alone to impact state races related vouchers, winning 121 out of 181 races in which it intervened. All Children Matter was found breaking campaign finance laws in 2008, yet has still not paid its $5.2 million fine. She has founded and/or funded a vast network of voucher front groups, including Children First America, the Alliance for School Choice, Kids Hope USA, and the American Federation for Children.
– American Federation for Children (AFC): AFC made headlines recently when it brought together Govs. Scott Walker (R-WI) and Tom Corbett (R-PA) and former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee at a major school choice event in Washington, D.C. AFC is perhaps the most prominent of all the current voucher groups, having been founded in January 2010 by Betsy DeVos. Working together with its PAC of the same name and the 501c(3) organization also lead by DeVos, the Alliance for School Choice, it has served as a launching pad for school choice legislation across the country. AFC made its mark in Wisconsin by pouring thousands of dollars into the state legislative races, donating $40,000 in the service of successfully electing voucher advocate Rep. Kathy Bernier (R) and donating similar amounts to elect Reps. Andre Jacque (R), John Klenke (R), Tom Larson (R), Howard Marklein (R), Erik Severson (R), and Travis Tranel (R). DeVos front group All Children Matter also donated thousands to many of these same voucher advocates. Altogether, AFC spent $820,000 in Wisconsin during the last election, making it the 7th-largest single PAC spender during the election (behind several other mostly right-wing groups with similar agendas).
– Alliance for School Choice (ASC): The Alliance for School Choice is another DeVos front group founded to promote vouchers and serves as the education arm of AFC. In 2008, the last date available for its financial disclosures, its total assets amounted to $5,467,064. DeVos used the organization not only for direct spending into propaganda campaigns, but to give grants to organizations with benign-sounding names so that they could push the radical school choice agenda. For example, in 2008 the organization gave $530,000 grant to the “Black Alliance for Educational Options” in Washington, D.C. and a $433,736 grant to the “Florida School Choice Fund.” This allowed DeVos to promote her causes without necessarily revealing her role. But it isn’t just the DeVos family that’s siphoning money into the Alliance for School Choice and its many front group patrons. Among its other wealthy funders include the Jaquelin Hume Foundation (which gave $75,000 in 2008 and $100,000 in 2006), the brainchild of one of an ultra-wealthy California businessman who brought Ronald Reagan to power, the powerful Wal Mart Foundation (which gave $100,000 in 2005, the Chase Foundation of Virginia (which gave $9,000 in 2007, 2008, and the same amount in 2009), which funds over “supports fifty nonprofit libertarian/conservative public policy research organizations,” and hosts investment banker Derwood Chase, Jr. as a trustee, the infamous oil billionaire-driven Charles Koch Foundation ($10,000 in 2005), and the powerful Wal Mart family’s Walton Family Foundation (more than $3 million over 2004–2005).
– Bill and Susan Oberndorf: This Oberndorfs use their fortune, gained from Bill’s position as the managing director of the investment firm SPO Partners, to funnel money to a wide variety of school choice and corporate education reform groups. In 2009, their Bill and Susan Oberndorf Foundation gave $376,793 to AFC, $5,000 to the Center for Education Reform, and $50,000 to the Brighter Choice Foundation. Additionally, Bill Oberndorf gave half a million dollars to the school choice front group All Children Matter between 2005 and 2007. At a recent education panel, Bill Oberndorf was credited with giving “tens of millions” of dollars of his personal wealth to the school choice movement, and said that the passage of the Indiana voucher law was the “gold standard” for what should be done across America.
– The Walton Family Foundation (WFF):The Wal Mart-backed WFF is one of the most powerful foundations in the country, having made investments in 2009 totaling over $378 million. In addition to financing a number of privately-managed charter schools itself, the foundation showered ASC with millions of dollars in 2009. It also gave over a million dollars to the New York-based Brighter Choice Foundation, half a million dollars to the Florida School Choice Fund, $105,000 to the Foundation for Educational Choice, $774,512 to the Friends of Educational Choice, $400,000 to School Choice Ohio, and gave $50,000 to the Piton Foundation to promote a media campaign around the Colorado School Choice website — all in 2009 alone. WFF’s push for expanding private school education and undermining traditional public schools was best summed up by John Walton’s words in an interview in 2000. An interviewer asked him, “Do you think there’s money to be made in education?” Walton replied, “Absolutely. I think it will offer a reasonable return for investors.” (He also did vigorously argue in the same interview that he does not want to abolish public education).
The wealthy families and powerful corporate-backed foundations presented here are just a sampling of some of the forces currently taking aim at public education. By demonizing traditional public schools and the teachers that staff them, this corporate education movement is undermining a very basic aspect of our democracy: a public commons that provides true opportunity for all, no matter what their background or socioeconomic status.
While the goals of the figures in this movement are varied, their assault on our public education system is one and the same. Joseph Bast, the president and CEO of the Heartland Institute, explained his own thinking about vouchers once, saying, “The complete privatization of schooling might be desirable, but this objective is politically impossible for the time being. Vouchers are a type of reform that is possible now, and would put us on the path to further privatization.” It’s up to Americans to protect their schools, teachers, kids, and communities from that fate.