by David Safier
Let’s take a look at the group — actually the groups — behind the robocall Ed Supe John Huppenthal made advising parents to send their kids to private schools on the taxpayer dime — in other words, in support of vouchers. The whole story deserves one of those complicated diagrams with names and arrows and circles, but I’m not a diagram guy, so I’m going to try and draw the picture in words.
The short version is this: Huppenthal recorded a robocall giving parents the “great news” that they can take advantage of “alternative education choices for their children, including private school. That’s right! You may be able to send your child to private school for free!”
It’s part of a $250,000 PR push for Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) paid for by Alliance for School Choice. Its partner organization, American Federation for Children, spent $63,000 on an independent expenditure campaign to help Hupp win his 2010 election. It's no surprise the Alliance for School Choice has Hupp on speed dial.
From there the story gets more complicated, involving the Walton family which owns Walmart, Betsy DeVos who is part of the Amway fortune, and a faux-Democratic group that pours money into voucher-friendly Democrats’ campaigns. You’ve heard tell of the vast right wing conspiracy. This is the story of a small part of the vast, well funded conservative/corporate “education reform” movement which spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to get out its pro-voucher, pro-privatization message.
Let’s start with the Alliance for School Choice that’s footing the bill for the ESA push. It’s a conservative nonprofit organization with lots of donors and millions to spend. The biggest single donor is the Walton Family Foundation — that's the Walmart family — which is a huge funder of the whole voucher/privatization movement. From 2009 to 2013, the Waltons sunk $9.65 million into the Alliance for School Choice. During those same years, by the way, the Waltons also gave $3 million to the Arizona Charter Schools Association. Those two donations are only a small part of the Foundation's educational largesse. In 2013 alone, it gave $164 million under the heading of “Systematic K-12 Education Reform.”
The American Federation for Children (AFC), the group that poured $63,000 into Hupp’s 2010 campaign, is the part of the Alliance for School Choice that gives money and support to candidates. It’s led by Betsy DeVos who married into the Amway fortune and is another major source of money for the school privatization movement.
The AFC doesn't limit its political money and endorsements to Republicans, even though it's a conservative organization. When it sees Democrats who might buy into its agenda, the AFC helps them too.
Case in point. In 2012 Democratic State Senator Barbara McGuire (LD-8) proudly displayed an endorsement from the AFC , which created an independent expenditure campaign on her behalf, on her website. In 2013, she first voted No on a bill to expand the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. But when she realized her vote made the difference between the bill going up or down, she changed her vote to Yes, and the expansion passed. As a result, McGuire received public praise from both the Goldwater Institute and the AFC.
Also connected to this conservative privatization web is a group named Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Its Democratic credentials are so questionable, the California Democratic Party passed a formal resolution condemning the group. DFER has the same function as the AFC — giving money and support to pro-privatization candidates — but its name makes it look like a solid Democratic group. In fact, it shares its leadership with the AFC.
DFER recently set up shop in Arizona and is shopping around for current Democratic legislators to pull into its web while it scouts around for promising new Democratic candidates who will carry the pro-privatization banner.
Following the money and influence of the conservative "education reform" movement gets complex and confusing in a hurry. It includes the groups I've discussed, our own Goldwater Institute, ALEC of course, and dozens of other groups, local and national, large and small, which work to create a groundswell of support for its anti-public school agenda.