Monday, August 27, 2007

What are they doing nationwide?

Tracking down the names and purposes behind Parents for Choice in Education's largest contributor, All Children Matter of Michigan, has been like pulling at what looks like a loose string on a sweater. But the more you pull on it, the more you find that it's all one string, knitted back-and-forth from one sleeve to the other. In just a few hours this weekend, I know that what I've learned can't be more than a fraction of what there is to know. But I've been amazed at the reach of this organization into several states across the country. And in every state, there's the same story: A little local money and a lot of Michigan money gets routed, usually through a political action committee in Virginia, into Utah, or Ohio, or Texas, or Missouri, or South Carolina, to get people elected or appointed who will push voucher plans through the legislature or the state board of education. The money that is spent in a single year to make this happen is more than most people will ever see in a lifetime.

Rebecca Walsh's story in the Trib (June 25, 2006) got me pointed in the right direction, looking at All Children Matter. Reading her article, I understood why Utah was picked for this voucher plan: It's considered a "small state" by people who fund ACM, so it's would be cheaper here to run a voucher plan through the legislature and past Utah voters, and then use that victory to build momentum for campaigns in bigger states. It means this a national campaign, not just an idea that grew from Utah voters or lawmakers.

I asked what this said about our legislature, that ACM could target us -- a small, cheap state -- to pour money into some legislative campaigns in order to protect or win enough votes to get a voucher plan through the legislature? I wondered what it says about us that for a few million dollars, these people from Michigan got exactly the bill they wanted, House Bill 148, by a one-vote margin in the House last winter. Mrs. Walsh explained that the voucher plan has almost nothing to do with Utah voters; it has more to do with the folks from Michigan and their fight against Utah teachers.

In fact, it isn't just Utah teachers, I discovered -- it's teachers (or public schools) across the nation.

A lot of people in the media have already been covering a lot of these details. You just have to put all the pieces of the puzzle together to see the big picture. This weekend, I found a lot more of the pieces scattered across the country.

For example, a writer named Susan Cunningham in Missouri wrote on August 28, 2005, about ACM on her weblog here ( She wrote,

"This national organization claims on its website to work for the election of public officials who are committed to ensure that all children in America have equal access to a quality education. The group was founded in 2003 by former Amway Corporation president Richard DeVos and lists some of its big contributors as hard-core privatization proponents. Whenever right-wing big corporation types start looking and sounding like "bleeding heart liberals," it's time to do some checking.

Background: Going WAY back - Fifty years ago, conservative guru Milton Friedman, called for "denationalizing schooling" and letting "private enterprise" do the job of educating young Americans. In a Wall Street Journal article in June of this year, Friedman celebrated the fact that his voucher idea was finally catching on. ("After 50 years, education vouchers are beginning to catch on," WSJ, June 9, 2005.)

The goal of most of the pro-privatization groups is to dismantle ALL public programs because they don't think it's the government's job to help individual people. The most famous statement by one of these adherents is the "drown it in the bathtub" comment by Grover Norquist in reference to his goal of eliminating government sponsored social programs.

All Children Matter is just one of many groups pushing for the de-funding of public education. They work together with front groups in local elections to get the candidates most willing to do their bidding into office.

And in her own research of them, she found this list of their activities:

November 2003 "Michigan PAC gave cash to 24 VA politicians." All Children Matter spent $300,000 to elect representatives favorable to school voucher programs and tried to make it look like they were primarily concerned about low-income children not having enough options. Virginia voters saw through the charade, but ACM promised to be back in future elections.

July 2004 "Groups push for passage of tuition tax-credit bill." Before the June primary, ACM sent mailers and bought radio time in South Carolina to lobby in favor of income-tax credits for parents who send their kids to private schools, despite the fact that low-income parents don't make enough to benefit from a tax break. A bill to that effect died in committee, but ACM promised to be back.

October 2004 "Pro-voucher group drops cash on state campaigns." ACM sent fliers to voters in St. Petersburg, Florida, in support of a pro-voucher candidate for state representative. The candidate tried to distance himself from the group and said he hadn't seen the flier before it was mailed. As state rep, the candidate voted to create the state's two largest voucher programs: the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship program for low-income kids and the McKay Scholarship which helps disabled children. ACM's donations to all Florida candidates in that election was over $500,000. That's a lot of "compassionate conservatism."

December 2004 "Out-of-state donors are big players in tax credit debate." Certain Republican incumbents in the Utah House of Representatives were targets of ACM for not being conservative enough! ACM's $252,000 combined with $50,000 from another pro-voucher group accounted for 86% of the money taken in by Parents for Choice in Education, the main Utah advocate for tuition tax credits for parents of private school children. They tried to defeat Republican Rep. David Hogue despite Hogue's credentials as a proven conservative and support from his own conservative colleagues. The reason? Hogue had voted against a tax credit bill. Similar tactics were applied to the race of Republican Rep. Jim Dunnigan, but both Hogue and Dunnigan were re-elected. (Parents for Choice, it seems, doesn't involve very many parents. Only 12 people were counted as "$50 or less" contributors.)

For good reason, Mrs. Cunningham asked, "What's really going on here?"

She decided,

There are lots of different motivations for people to want to dismantle public education. For some, it's about religion. Some people don't agree with the public school curriculum which is based on preference for the scientific method, historical inquiry, the celebration of individual diversity, and the belief that each child has unique potential. Parents who prefer private schools are certainly free to send their children to them or home school them or whatever. But they shouldn't be able to opt out of paying taxes for public schools any more than they can opt out of paying for public roads, parks, police departments or any other investment in the common good of the community. Educating ourselves is an investment in the future of our country, not just one families' kids.

For others, the desire to destroy public schools is about finding ways to make money. With so many of the avenues for capital investment and profit going overseas or becoming saturated with too many people fighting over the same resources, corporations are looking for new ways to make a buck. Thus the "privatization" of everything movement. Just as HMO's have succeeded in making lots of people rich, so too can EMO's, or so they think.

For others, the privatization craze is ideological. They truly believe in limited government and think all social programs should be run by for-profit companies or "faith-based" service organizations. For those who are eager to see both the conversion of programs to private ventures and the conversion of American voters to a conservative religious point of view, dismantling public schools accomplishes two goals at once.

Last year, WOOD-TV in Michigan did a story ( on Dick DeVos, who founded ACM and who was running for governor of Michigan then, and the story lays out pretty clearly that Mr. DeVos and his wife have a lot of money to spend, and they have a specific public policy agenda, and they have figured out a way to get their money into several states where some lawmakers are willing to take their contributions and carry their agenda.

DeVos in 2003 set up a political action committee, All Children Matter, to promote efforts in other states to push vouchers and tax credits for businesses that create scholarships for children to attend private schools. The PAC is run out of west Michigan even though it's set up in Virginia. DeVos initially headed the group but since has handed that responsibility over to his wife.

The PAC has been a way for the DeVoses - and Wal-Mart heirs Jim and John Walton, among others - to give millions of dollars this year and in previous elections to candidates in states such as Ohio and South Carolina that support school choice. All Children Matter also has played a financial role in aiding efforts in Utah, Texas and other states to push for vouchers and tax credits for parents who want to send their children to private schools.

In 2004, for instance, All Children Matter gave about $1.4 million to All Children Matter-Colorado to spend on legislative races and help elect candidates who agreed with their views. In Utah that year, the group gave about $252,000 to a PAC called Parents for Choice that pushed for private-school vouchers and tuition tax credits.

All Children Matter spent more than $8.2 million in at least 10 states in the 2003-04 cycle, according to the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, making it one of the largest PACs to play a role in that election. Dick and Betsy DeVos gave $375,000 to All Children Matter from 1999 through 2005.

At about the same time, a writer at the weblog "Stone Soup Musings" in Michigan described here ( what they learned ACM was doing in Texas.

Although DeVos is busy spending his fortune in Michigan to get himself elected governor (more than $5 million so far), his influence doesn't end there. Questions about the PAC's funding extend to Texas too.

[In March,] Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller... asked state election officials to investigate whether two political action committees funded by the state’s biggest private school voucher pusher have complied with campaign finance laws. One complaint Miller filed with the Texas Ethics Commission asks whether the Texas Republican Legislative Campaign Committee (TRLCC) –- funded almost entirely by San Antonio businessman Dr. James Leininger –- has met legal requirements before making campaign expenditures. The other notes that All Children Matter PAC –- a beneficiary of large Leininger contributions over the years –- may not have reported all of its contributions. [...]

All Children Matter PAC reported a December 2005 in-kind contribution of $54,360 for polling services to The Future of Texas Alliance PAC. Yet All Children Matter PAC reported a cash-on-hand balance of just $2,168.95 in July and has reported no income since. In fact, the PAC even failed to make monthly reports for August and September 2005. As a result, voters have no way of knowing how the PAC is accounting for the more than $52,000 difference in income and expenditures.

As much as I found published in 2006 and before, the coverage of ACM's activities across the country in 2007 has been much greater.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

I wouldn't discount the desire to make money as being behind the voucher push too lightly. Dick DeVos' brother-in-law is Erik Prince (Betsy DeVos' brother) and Erik is the founder of Blackwater Security. As you may know, Blackwater has secured millions and millions of dollars in government contracts providing security services in Iraq, and they also secured contracts to provide help during Katrina.

Google Blackwater and you'll be amazed at what you'll find. It's a money making machine for the Prince family, and I have no doubt the push behind ACM is motivated by dollar signs too.