From Guest Blogger Rachel Tabachnick, Talk to Action: Voucher Advocate Betsy DeVos, Right-Wing Think Tanks Behind Koch-Style Attack on PA Public Schools (Section 3)
The Family Research Council website features a speech given in 1999 by Hubert Morken, a Pat Robertson biographer and Regent University professor. Titled “The Naked Public School: Religion, Education and Character in the Aftermath of Columbine,” Morken describes the alliances and outreach efforts to African Americans in Pennsylvania,
“The leadership dimension of education reform is the most exciting of all today. For example, for decades, school choice went nowhere as long as it was perceived as a Catholic issue. Evangelical Protestants who prevented this reform now join with Catholics to promote it, and these religious groups now ally themselves with free-market advocates and members of the African-American community.”
“The Pennsylvania story is similar and involves not just entrepreneurs but also lawyers, churches, policy think tanks, and grassroots organizations. In Pennsylvania, the alliance of Catholics, evangelicals, and free-market organizations goes back to the 1980s and earlier. The late William Bentley Ball, a devout Catholic and distinguished religion and education litigator, not only represented Protestants before the Supreme Court, but also served as in-house counsel for the Association of Christian Schools International, the largest evangelical school organization in the nation. Also, in Harrisburg, the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank, and the Pennsylvania Family Institute, associated with Focus on the Family and Family Research Council, have close ties with the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference on education issues. The REACH (the Road to Educational Achievement through Choice) Alliance is a clearinghouse and public face for this coalition. Recently, these supporters of school choice formed ties to black legislators based in Philadelphia, including Dwight Evans. This was big news for the Pennsylvania education reform movement because Evans is a powerful legislator and community leader.”
The Commonwealth Foundation, mentioned in Morken’s quote, and the Allegheny Policy Institute located in the Pittsburgh suburbs, are funded by the Scaife foundations. Richard Mellon Scaife also owns the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Michael W. Gleba is president of one Scaife foundation and treasurer of another. He also serves as chairman of the Commonwealth Foundation, whose emeritus directors include former Club for Growth president and new Republican Senator Pat Toomey.
PA State Rep. Dwight Evans, referenced in Morken’s speech, is one the board of directors for the Black Alliance for Educational Opportunity (BAEO). It was founded in 2000 by Howard Fuller, director of the Institute for Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, heavily funded by the Walton foundations. Kevin Chavous became chair of the BAEO in 2009 and also chairs Democrats For Educational Reform (DFER). Both Chavous and DFER board member Boykin Curry also serve on the board of Betsy Devos’ American Federation for Children. The Philanthropy Roundtable’s Catholic School Guide describes the DFER, launched in 2007. “Non-tax deductible contributions come from individuals like hedge-fund investors William Ackman, R. Boykin Curry IV, Charles Ledley, John Petry, and Whitney Tilson.”
BAEO directors include Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Pennsylvania’s Dwight Evans, Anthony Williams, and Dawn Chavous. Chavous is Executive Director of Students First and was the campaign manager of Williams’ gubernatorial campaign. Since 2006, the program of the annual symposium of BAEO has included a statement in its program extending thanks for the support of the Honorable Dwight Evans, (PA state Representative) and the Honorable Anthony Williams, (PA state Senator). Also in the programs is recognition of the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, among others.
Anthony Williams is now the Democratic PA Senate Minority Whip and Democratic co-sponsor of Pennsylvania’s SB-1. He has drawn statewide attention due to huge contributions to his campaign, funded by pro-voucher PACs including Students First PAC which had been funded with millions from Joel Greenberg and his SIG partners Arthur Dantchik and Jeffrey Yass. (This is perfectly legal in Pennsylvania since there are no personal campaign contribution limits in state races.) Shortly after his entry into the campaign, Williams raised a stunning 1.7 million dollars. Perhaps more shocking was the additional 1,625,000 dollars that the three funders contributed to Students First PAC, that was then contributed to Williams campaign in the week before the primary election.
Contributions to Students First PAC from March to May totaled over 1.5 million from Jeffrey Yass, 1.7 million from Arthur Dantchik, and 1.9 million from Joel Greenberg.
Sometimes the group would contribute in unison. For instance on May 11, 2010, one week prior to the primary election, Yass gave $533,333.00, Dantchik gave $533,333.00 and Greenberg gave $533,334.00. The graphic above is the trio’s contributions to Students First PAC from March through May, compiled from the figures on the Pennsylvania Department of State Finance Reporting, and does not include the trio’s contributions to other PACs which supported Williams’ gubernatorial campaign. The American Federation for Children Action Fund also donated 1.2 million dollars to Student First PAC immediately prior to the election.[Note 4/21/11: Dantchik total corrected from over 1.4 to over 1.7 million]
Pennsylvania press described Williams’ contributors as school choice supporters but failed to mention their affiliation with organizations and think tanks with ideological objections to public education. Joel Greenberg is a director of the Betsy DeVos-led American Federation for Children. Jeffrey Yass is on the board of the Cato Institute (Scaife/DeVos-funded). Ed Crane, founder and president of Cato, signed the Alliance for Separation of School and State proclamation to end public schools.
The Merry Band of Libertarian Lawyers and Their Religious Right Counterparts
Dantchik is on the board of the Institute for Justice (Scaife/DeVos/Koch-funded), which describes itself as a “merry band of libertarian lawyers.” Institute for Justice, co-founded by Clint Bolick, is known for its legal battles against affirmative action, but now promotes its work as advocacy for the disadvantaged and school choice. Bolick was vocally opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, labeled Lani Guinier, President Bill Clinton’s nominee for Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights as “one of Clinton’s quota queens.”
Dantchik was one of only eight investors in an investment fund called the Free Enterprise Action Fund (FEAF or Ticker: FEAOX). The fund was managed by Thomas Borelli and global warming denier Steven J. Milloy, also known for his website JunkScience.com. The fund was notorious for trying to bully companies into abandoning support for environmental causes. They accused corporations in which they invested of being too environmentally friendly, including Walmart, GE, and Goldman Sachs. They sent letters to Goldman Sachs stockholders lobbying for their support for a proposal to end company involvement in environmental causes and alleging that Henry Paulson’s leadership of the Nature Conservancy Board was a conflict of interest with his role as CEO of Goldman Sachs. Thomas Borelli told Walmart stockholders to quit pandering to an altruistic society and “use your marketing muscle to get Ayn Rand’s timeless novel Atlas Shrugged into thousands of homes.” [Video]
Documentation for the FEAF recommended the fund as “appropriate for investors who seek to promote the American system of free enterprise while pursuing their long-term financial goals.” The Fund’s guiding principle is described with a quote from Milton Friedman,
“The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”
Of the eight FEAF investors, one was CLAWS, the foundation through which Arthur Dantchik makes his charitable contributions, and another was Robert A. Levy. Levy is also on the board of the Institute for Justice and chairman of the board of directors of the Cato Institute. In 2009 the fund merged with the Congressional Effect Fund, which pulls out of the stock market when the U.S. Congress is in session. The FEAF’s former website now features a short announcement that ends,
“Stay tuned for more in the fight to keep big businesses from becoming wholly-owned subsidiaries of Marxist-Socialism, Inc.”
Libertarian-minded investment and hedge fund managers have contributed shocking amounts of money to promote the privatization of schools, but they are not the primary source of marketing of the anti-public education, anti-union, and anti-federal regulation agenda to the general public. This is how the partnership of the “doers and donors” described by Richard Devos works. The talking points are developed in the think tanks but are then largely distributed to the public by Religious Right organizations. For instance, the anti-environmental stance of the investors of the FEAF fund is echoed in a recent media production marketed by the Cornwall Alliance, a coalition of Religious Right leaders. The two groups have little else in common. One group objects to environmentalism as competition for dollars; the other objects to environmentalism as a competing religion.
The Cornwall Alliance’s pseudo-documentary is titled “Resisting the Green Dragon.” Marketed on DVD, it features national Religious Right leaders who claim that global warming is a hoax and that environmentalism is a religion in competition with Christianity. They describe environmentalism as “the cult of the green dragon.”
Several of the organizations represented in the video production have been supported by the DeVos and Prince families. The Cornwall Alliance is headed by Calvin Beisner, a fellow of the Acton Institute (DeVos/Koch/Scaife-funded). Betsy DeVos has served on the Acton board and Dick DeVos was given the institute’s Faith and Freedom Award in 2010. Acton’s fellows also include other signers of the proclamation to end public schools, including Marvin Olasky.
Noted religious historian Randall Balmer describes the Acton Institute as part of a “powerful coalition to oppose environmental protection” that combines the Dominion Theology of the Religious Right and the wise use ideology of some corporate and business leaders. Dominion Theology is the belief that Christians should take authority or dominion over society and government. Acton has sponsored dominionist conferences including American Vision’s Worldview Super Conference 2010.
Religious Right groups are often portrayed as only concerned with social issues like opposing gay rights and women’s reproductive rights. But “Biblical Capitalism” or the belief that laissez-faire economics is biblically mandated, has been growing in popularity for more than two decades. Although the merry band of libertarians and the dominionists may have little in common, the anti-environmental, anti-union, anti-regulatory agenda of each is empowering the other. The combined front has become a formidable force for radical free market fundamentalism and the eradication of the public sector.
The Future of Public Schools in Pennsylvania
In October, Pennsylvania’s auditor general Jack Wagner warned that a “flawed funding system” for the already existing charter schools was costing the state millions of dollars. Wagner, a Democrat, was also a candidate for governor in the 2010 primaries. He had voted for charter schools as a state senator and voiced support for them during his campaign, but prior to the general election released a report calling for a temporary moratorium on new charter and cyber schools, similar to those imposed in several other states. Pennsylvania taxpayers spent almost a billion dollars on 116 charter and 11 charter cyber schools in the 2008 -2009 school year.
Simultaneous with the huge cuts in the state’s education budget, proposed by New Republican Governor Tom Corbett, the Senate will be voting on SB-1 which would provide vouchers for low income students and cost the state hundred of millions of dollars. Philadelphia’s public schools could lose 40 million dollars of funding next year. Meanwhile Governor Corbett refuses to tax gas drilling in the state’s abundant Marcellus Shale. He claims it would be unpatriotic.
The Future of Vouchers
The huge donations did not result in a win for Anthony Williams, but they did add to the media hype surrounding the push for vouchers. After the primary, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Dan Onorato changed course and made a public appearance with Williams in support of portions of his voucher plan. The conservative publication National Review Online responded that Williams was a “force to be reckoned with” and concluded that Onorato’s about face on vouchers should be considered a win for Tom Corbett since “Onorato becomes basically Republican-lite on education.” Onorato lost and even failed to carry his home base in Allegheny County. Again, from National Review Online,
“Now that it’s clear Onorato won’t be gaining financially from this move — at least from the Williams backers — this “grant” position on education looks all the more like an ill-conceived attempt to appeal to a demographic already likely to vote Republican, while inviting alienation of the union base that he’ll need in lock-step to close a gaping 10-point deficit in the polls.”
The word “grant” in quotes in the NRO article refers to the fact that Onorato would not use the word voucher. In hindsight, the huge campaign contributions to Williams may have been a well orchestrated trap for the Democratic Party, providing the illusion that support for vouchers was becoming more broad-based.
Williams’ official website has a list of organizations which have signed up to support SB-1. The list of churches and religious organizations are primarily those with right-wing political leanings and the rest of the list is dominated by a who’s who of pro-privatization think tanks. It is a list you would have expected to find on the website of Rick Santorum, not on the website of a Democratic state senator.
Polls have shown as many as two thirds of Pennsylvanians are opposed to using tax money to fund private and parochial schools, but on April 19, with the vote only a week away, Students First PA released a poll showing 54 percent of Pennsylvania’s likely voters support the pending voucher legislation. Students First PAC list its public relations contact as Brabender Cox, one of the leading Republican media firms.
Students First PA held a rally in support of the bill at the state capitol on April 12. Video of the rally is part of an ad campaign on the Internet throughout the state, sponsored by Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks. FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity spun off from the David Koch-founded Citizens For A Sound Economy. The media campaign is amplifying the voice of voucher supporters in preparation for the vote next week.
The videos of the rally produced by Students First PA are compelling, as was the conveniently-timed pro-school privatization movie, Waiting for Superman. They feature students and parents who have very legitimate concerns about education in their communities and good reason to fight back against the inequities in public education. Before Pennsylvanians begin to dismantle the state’s public school systems, perhaps they should educate themselves about the agenda of the movement’s leading advocate, Betsy DeVos.
DeVos wrote a biting op-ed for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call in 1997 in which she stated that her family did indeed expect a return on their huge investments.
“I know a little something about soft money, as my family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party. …I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point.”
It is highly doubtful that the expected return on the millions of dollars invested by the advocates for free market education is improving Pennsylvania’s public schools. Their goal is privatization and we should take them seriously.
Also see Part Two in this Talk to Action series, a report tracking over $4.6 million dollars contributed to American Federation for Childrens’ Indiana PAC in 2010, prior to the election.