Wednesday, August 29, 2007

What are they doing in Wisconsin?

I have to tell you that after googling and reading news media articles online about All Children Matter of Michigan -- probably close to a hundred of them in the past couple of weeks -- I think I understand the way they put their money into a political action committee, either one in Michigan or one in Virginia, and then funnel the money to their operations in different states. They seem to pick small, cheap states -- ones where they believe they can win enough legislative races to get their voucher proposals adopted, or where they can influence a voter referendum. And they seem to prefer states where there's at least one wealthy partner in that state who will work with them (like Patrick Byrne here, or Rex Sinquefield in Missouri, or David Brennan in Ohio). And they seem to prefer states where there's an in-state "institute" that can produce pro-voucher studies or editorials (like the Sutherland Institute here, or the Show Me Institute in Missouri).

But they've been involved in something in Wisconsin that I'm still trying to understand. Reading the news articles about it is like reading many different pieces of a puzzle. But I found a summary at Wisconsin Democracy Campaign that I think includes most of the important parts. I found it here ( It explains a little bit about ACM's activity in Wisconsin, and its relationship to an organization called Alliance for Choices in Education (ACE), based in Milwaukee. (Although it sounds similar -- this confused me for a little while -- it is not the same group as the Alliance for School Choice (ASC), which is based in Phoenix, although ACE IS connected to ASC, and they're both connected to ACM, formally or informally. I admit it would be a lot easier to have all these state groups and individuals sketched out on a piece of paper.) Here it is:

All Children Matter is a right-wing group formed in Spring 2003 based in Michigan advocating school choice in the form of private school voucher programs and charter schools. Milwaukee school choice advocates, George and Susan Mitchell, represent the group in Wisconsin (see Alliance for Choices in Education). This group reportedly sought to influence about 16 state legislative races.

WDC [Wisconsin Democracy Campaign] confirms the following efforts. The group ran issue ad campaigns by direct mail in the 22nd, 30th and 32nd Senate districts. The mail pieces supported Republican Senate candidate Dan Kapanke (SD 32) and attacked Democratic incumbent Senators Robert Wirch (SD 22) and Dave Hansen (SD 30). They attacked Wirch and Hansen for their lack of support of a property tax freeze and made a veiled and unsubstantiated charge that they would send tax dollars to schools in Milwaukee at the expense of schools in their own districts.

It's these pieces of "direct mail" that apparently broke Wisconsin elections laws, and I'll explain that some more in a minute.

This group is headed by Michigan multimillionaire Dick DeVos, whose family is connected to Amway Corporation. DeVos' wife Betsy served for several years as the chair of the Michigan Republican Party. Her brother, Erik Prince, is the founder and owner of Blackwater Security Consulting, the private tactical training facility providing security forces in Baghdad. School choice advocate George Mitchell represents the group in Wisconsin, and has said ACM spent more than $500,000 to influence state legislative elections in 2004.

The Alliance for Choices in Education (ACE) is a non-profit advocacy organization that promotes parental school choice programs in the Milwaukee area. Headquartered in Milwaukee, ACE’s Board of Directors include a number of representatives of area private schools, and Dr. Howard Fuller, Institute for the Transformation of Learning, Susan Mitchell, Vice Chair, School Choice Wisconsin, Dr. Daniel Grego, Secretary, TransCenter for Youth, Inc., and Tim Sheehy , Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

ACE ran issue ads for their "Lift the Cap" campaign. Based on information from the web site, beginning in the spring of 2004, thousands of "Lift the Cap" yard signs, banners and bumper stickers were distributed in neighborhoods throughout Milwaukee. This was the beginning of a grassroots effort to mobilize community support for lifting the cap on the number of enrollments in Milwaukee’s school choice program. They were utilizing a real "issue ad" campaign urging citizens to call Governor Doyle and ask him to "Lift the Cap." As noted on their web site, they were utilizing radio commercials on urban contemporary and news talk stations, television commercials during Sunday morning news shows, billboards and bus signs throughout Milwaukee, and print advertisements in community newspapers and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

In 2002 Fuller and Mitchell were both leaders in the American Education Reform Council (AERC), now known as the Alliance for School Choice.

AERC lobbying arm, the American Education Reform Foundation, was a national organization headquartered in Milwaukee that supports school choice and school vouchers.

Susan and her husband, consultant George Mitchell, have long been substantial financial contributors in Wisconsin state politics. Since 1993 the Mitchells have contributed more than $56,000 to candidates for state office. Other financial backers of the group have included the Lynde and Harry Bradley and John M. Olin Foundations which provided the Council with $1.3 million between 1998 and 2001. Wal-Mart heir and prominent school voucher proponent John Walton provided nearly $1 million dollars between 1999 and 2000. In addition, a conduit called Funds for Choice in Education and chaired by George Mitchell funneled more than $109,000 to candidates for state office during the 2001-2002 election cycle and more than $101,000 to legislative candidates in the 2003-2004 election cycle.

There's John Walton's name and money again, still playing a role in funding voucher proposals across the country even though he died two years ago.

The "direct mail" flyers that ACM paid for in Wisconsin are the cause of some litigation still going on there. As I read about these mailed flyers, I wondered what our own election laws say about ACM's ability to fund the same thing here, and I honestly don't know if they have the freedom to send things like this to us. I haven't seen any yet. But Parents for Choice in Education, supported largely with ACM funds, has already admitted sponsoring a nasty "push-poll" here.

"Media Mouse," which says it's an independent media outlet in Grand Rapids, Michigan, wrote about those "direct mail" flyers and the litigation here ( last December.

All Children Matter (ACM), an organization founded by former Republican candidate for governor and longtime financer of the school voucher movement Dick DeVos, is being accused of laundering money and failing to properly register with the state of Wisconsin according to a complaint filed Friday with the Wisconsin Elections Board. The complaint alleges that a political action committee (PAC) run by All Children Matter out of Virginia failed to register in Wisconsin before contributing $35,000 to a PAC run by the organization in Wisconsin.

Through the Virginia-based PAC All Children Matter is also accused of violating Wisconsin election laws that bar corporate contributions, with an entity in Wisconsin--Alliance for Choices in Education--contributing $90,000 in money that eventually made its way back to Wisconsin in the form of $35,000 spent on "issue ads" criticizing three Democratic legislative candidates. The complaint describes the transfer of money from Wisconsin to Virginia and then back to Wisconsin as "a scheme to launder campaign contributions" that hides who paid for the advertisements.

Which sounds exactly like what I learned they did in Ohio, and that they're being investigated right now for doing.

Across the United States, All Children Matter has intervened in a number of state legislative races, often drawing criticism for pumping large sums of out of state money into legislative races. During the 2004 election in Wisconsin, All Children Matter contributed over $500,000 to candidates. All Children Matter campaigned heavily for Republican state legislators in Florida in during the 2004 election, but never disclosed the fact that it ultimately was formed to support school vouchers. In South Carolina in 2004, All Children Matter contributed several hundred thousand dollars to candidates who had pledged support for "school choice" while also funding direct mail advertisements in school board races.

The organization also intervened in Utah in 20046, contributing the majority of the money used by a Utah-based organization pushing for school vouchers. In Missouri's 2004 election, close to 95% of the candidates supported by All Children Matter were elected as a result of the organization's $385,339 in contributions. While these contributions are legal in the aforementioned states, they are often disclosed only as "All Children Matter" and obscures the out-of-state sources for the majority of the money. In Missouri, a study revealed that less than 1% of the total contributions to the state's ACM PAC came from Missouri residents.

Again, this is similar to what they've done already here. ACM contributed more than half of the funding behind Parents for Choice in Education last year, with the handful of PCE's leaders adding another substantial percentage. Reporters for local newspapers even wrote that while people who supported the petition drive (to let Utah voters voice their opposition to the plan in November) include hundreds or thousands of people who tended to give smaller amounts, less than $100 each, PCE tends to have a few dozen individual and corporate donors who give large sums to support the voucher plan.

As a result, All Children Matter's activities in Missouri and other states should be seen as an attempt by wealthy political activists--many like DeVos with long histories of supporting the religious and economic right--to subvert the democratic process.

All Children Matter was formed in the Spring of 2003 by Dick DeVos and his wife Betsy DeVos8 as an organization that would work to coordinate a national movement in support of political candidates that support government-funded vouchers for private schools.

The organization has been active in the "opportunity" states of Florida, Wisconsin, Texas, Colorado, and Virginia where DeVoses believe that the pro-voucher movement has a chance of succeeding. All Children Matter is one of many organizations around the country supported by Dick and Betsy DeVos, who have a long history of support the voucher movement.

So Utah is an "opportunity state" because they see it as an opportunity to win their voucher referendum. But, I just learned, when they tried to pass their voucher plan in their own home state, the voters voted it down there.

In Michigan, they bankrolled a failed 2000 ballot initiative that would have created a voucher program and run the Education Freedom Fund, an organization that awards scholarships for students to attend private schools as a means of building support for private schools and creating an ideological climate in which private schools are seen as "better" that public schools. In addition to running the Education Freedom Fund, they hold leadership positions in a number of organizations that are working to pass voucher programs around the country and to build support for the privatization of the public schools. Like their funding of organizations through their Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, their participation in the voucher movement is a fusion of religious right and free-market ideology.

"Media Mouse" offers a list of related links at their website, and I hope you'll check some of them out for yourself:

Finally, "One Wisconsin Now" made a note of ACM's legal troubles in Wisconsin here ( and made a list of other places where ACM has run into trouble for its activities that may have "bent" state laws.

On Friday a group of Racine area residents filed a complaint with the State Elections Board charging the Michigan-based organization, All Children Matter, with breaking Wisconsin state law. The complaint arose from a flyer distributed by the out-of-state organization, telling voters to "vote against" 21st Senate District Candidate Rep. John Lehman. This act clearly constituted express advocacy which triggered Wisconsin's statutory regulations. An organization doing express advocacy is required to disclose who they are, where they get their money, and how they are spending their money. All Children Matter did not report this information or register as a political action committee with the State Elections Board.

The recent complaint filed against All Children Matter is nothing new for the right wing organization. They have been the subject of numerous complaints all over the country for the manner in which they engage with issues and elections.

On June 7, 2005, the Associated Press reported on an ethics complaint filed against a Republican legislator in Missouri involving All Children Matter. That complaint alleged that a Republican legislator appeared to bribe her fellow Republicans to get them to reappoint her as chairwomen of a House education committee. In a letter to her colleagues, the legislator mentioned that she has helped to raise nearly $400,000 for Republicans, most of which came from All Children Matter.

In 2004, All Children Matter was accused of violating Florida election law with a flier promoting a candidate for the state House. A rival candidate filed charges against the organization with the Florida Elections Commission, stating that their support for the other candidate was express advocacy that violated campaign-contribution limits. Another candidate in Florida threatened to file a libel lawsuit against All Children Matter for sending out a flier accusing the candidate of not paying their property taxes.

Earlier this year in Texas, another group requested that All Children Matter be investigated by ethics officials. They claimed that the pro-voucher organization may not have filed reports with the state's election commission as frequently as required. They were also accused of not reporting certain donations from specific contributors.

And this is who is behind PCE, as clearly shown in campaign finance records.

How did this happen?

If I find more information about the investigations in Ohio and Wisconsin, I'll post it.