Friday, August 24, 2007

Why is Michigan money coming here?

When I said I'd start to look at who was behind the pro-voucher side of the November ballot referendum, there were two things I certainly didn't expect. One, how long I could spend chasing links to more links to even more links on the internet, and two, how many people -- far and wide apart across the country -- are involved in Parents for Choice in Education. At the end of it all, it became clear to me that PCE isn't a Utah organization at all; we just happen to be a convenient target for someone else's agenda because of the circumstances in our state and because we have a handful of people willing to devote their time to that agenda. After finding reading probably 50 different news articles going back over the past couple of years in Utah and elsewhere, I still can't tell how much money from Michigan and Virginia is being sent here to get vouchers passed in Utah, or who all is behind it.

But I learned one more important thing that helps: 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.

Rebecca Walsh of the Trib wrote on June 25, 2006, that "Parents for Choice in Education has a grass-roots image and a name ready-made for focus groups. But it turns out most of the cash the advocacy group for private-school vouchers and tuition tax credits spreads around Utah in elections comes from big-business donors outside the state - including the Wal-Mart heirs and founders of multilevel marketing giant Amway."

Ms. Walsh's article isn't live anymore at the Trib's website, but you can read it (or most of it) at the weblog of Susan Ohanian here (

She wrote:

Organized five years ago as a political action committee - a fledgling roost for charter-school and private-school devotees - Parents for Choice initially was relatively low-budget and weak. But an infusion of out-of-state financing has changed that, allowing the group to build a base of support in the state Legislature and Governor's Office and shape the education-reform debate in Utah.

So far this year, the voucher advocates and related political organizations and individuals have given 21 candidates for the state Legislature more than $64,000 leading up to party conventions and Tuesday's primary election. Undoubtedly, that number will grow as candidates work their way to November's general election and Parents for Choice's financiers continue to send checks. If money is power, Parents for Choice is bulking up.

When voucher advocates first opened their doors, their ideas were big but money was scarce. Venture capitalist Jordan Clements and telecommunications executive Doug Holmes believed Utah needed a political organization to push education reform: merit pay for teachers and "school choice" - charter schools, private-school scholarships, vouchers and tax credits.

In 2002, with just $10,000, the PAC gave modest donations to a dozen conservative lawmakers and candidates. The next year was even leaner. Only six candidates received cash. But in 2004, all that changed with $255,000 in seed money from Michigan-based All Children Matter. That year, the PAC spread its good fortune around. And Parents for Choice supporter Patrick Byrne, chief, chipped in $75,000 for Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

Now, there are spinoffs of the PAC - Education Excellence Utah and Children First Utah. Other related or sympathetic PACs have formed recently, including Utah Working Moms and Dads, whose founders include former Salt Lake County Councilman Russell Skousen, and Future Moms and Dads. Parents for Choice in Education director Elisa Clements Peterson, Clements' daughter, refuses to comment about her organization's financing until September - a federal tax deadline that coincides with a state deadline for political action committee disclosure forms.

"Nobody's going to comment," communications director Nancy Pomeroy said. When pressed about the sources of Parents for Choice's money, specifically All Children Matter, Pomeroy said: "I don't know what you're talking about."

The last quote -- "Nobody's going to comment" -- reminded me of the articles in the papers last week about the nasty push-polling PCE did. PCE's spokeswoman didn't answer the questions asked of her, and the board member who was asked for comment wouldn't give one.

Mrs. Walsh explained the history of All Children Matter, the group that gave so much money to PCE and Utah legislators' campaigns last year:

All Children Matter evolved out of a failed 2000 Michigan citizens initiative for private-school vouchers. Chairwoman Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick, have a long history of pushing for "school choice." In 2001, Betsy DeVos organized the Great Lakes Education Project to push for charter schools in Michigan's Legislature.

Two years later, that group morphed into All Children Matter. Dick DeVos is an Amway heir and a 2006 candidate for Michigan governor.

The DeVos family has spent a good chunk of their fortune on the PAC. Along with them, Wal-Mart heirs Jim and John Walton are frequent donors, giving more than $3 million to the PAC in 2004.

Utah's voucher and tax-credit advocates have received their share of that funding. All Children Matter Director Greg Brock says along with Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, Missouri, Virginia and Wisconsin, Utah is a key state for the school-choice movement - in part because a political action committee already existed here. Also, campaign money spreads further in small states.

I didn't mention this in my notes on Wednesday, but when I google-searched the Heartland Institute, I found a page that lists its board of directors, and Thomas Walton is a member of their board. When I saw the Walton family name again in Mrs. Walsh's article, it made sense to connect those dots.

Reading her article, it makes it clearer to me why Utah was picked for this voucher plan: It's considered a "small state" by the people who fund All Children Matter, so it 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.

And what does this say about our legislature, that this organization targeted 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 assembly? What does it say 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 this winter?

Though it certainly wasn't an overnight success. Mrs. Walsh shows that it took a few years for them to get what they wanted.

Virtually every year since Parents for Choice formed, Utah lawmakers have debated the merits of some legislation pushed by Parents for Choice - including proposals for publicly-funded tax credits or vouchers for parents who send their children to private schools, scholarships for disabled students and easing regulations on charter schools. The most controversial issues - vouchers and tax credits - inevitably stall as lawmakers split along the narrowest of margins.

Parents for Choice and All Children Matter are determined to shift that margin, Brock says. But like Peterson, Brock declined to talk about how much money the Michigan PAC is sending west this election year until September, for "strategic reasons."

The strategy is clear. So far, tax-credit advocates have targeted moderate, public-education friendly legislators, many of them schoolteachers. And the tactic already has worked: Lehi Rep. David Cox, a fifth-grade teacher, lost his bid for re-election at the Utah County Republican convention in April. His opponent, Ken Sumsion, got $3,545 from Parents for Choice and Utah Working Moms and Dads.

"That money made the biggest difference," Cox said. "They were researching my record a year ago to find any bills they could twist to make me look bad. I couldn't compete with the level of sophistication and expertise that was brought in."

I read this and I think, again, what does this say about us? That a group of wealthy people in Michigan come to Salt Lake City and decide who and what our state government is going to be?

And then Mrs. Walsh explains that it has almost nothing to do with Utah voters at all. It has more to do with the folks from Michigan and their fight against Utah's teachers. When you look at the details, the overflow of money from Michigan is even stranger.

Parents for Choice board member Steve Poulton, a former legislator, said sending money to sympathetic candidates is the PAC's right as a participant in democracy.

"It is delightful to see an organization like Parents for Choice in Education take on historically the most powerful special interest group in the state, the teachers union," Poulton said. "The education lobby - led by the teachers union - has long been without a counterbalance of any kind."

So far this year, UEA has spent $5,000 in legislative races, said Vik Arnold, UEA government relations and political-action director. Just three candidates have reported receiving cash from the teachers union.

UEA President Pat Rusk draws a line between her organization's political activities and that of school-choice advocates. For one thing, she says, UEA's funding comes from individual Utah teachers' donations and dues, which are pooled together. Parents for Choice seems to be financed in $1 million increments by wealthy, out-of-state business owners, Rusk said. She believes those donations undermine Parents for Choice's claims to be representing hundreds of Utah parents who want to buck public education.

"The money has allowed them to have Web sites and commercials," Rusk said. "There's a perception that they're bigger than they really are."
Whatever the number of its supporters, the survival of Parents for Choice is no longer in question. Seven candidates were on the group's "hit list" this year. With financing from groups like All Children Matter, that list likely will grow.