With Election Day tomorrow and politics on our minds, we might be reminded of the advice from Deep Throat, the secret informant in the Watergate scandal, who famously said, “Follow the money.” At least he did in the movie version. Right now with corporate money bankrolling our elections and paying for specific legislation, we would be wise to follow the money trail in education policy. It turns out that the facts are stranger than any movie fiction when it comes to politics and public education.
There are two groups you should know about, both pouring gobs of money into Pennsylvania politics in an attempt to privatize public education: Students First PAC and ALEC. Today we’ll deal with Students First PAC, which effectively channels money from multi-millionaires and billionaires – many from out-of-state – into the campaigns of candidates who support vouchers and expanding charter legislation. (See what we’ve written previously about the problem with vouchers and some charter schools.) Though there is a distinct line between vouchers and charter schools, the two are often conflated under the seemingly benign moniker of “school choice.”
Betsy DeVos could be the poster child for mega-billionaire spending on “school choice” politics, which is really about making sure that corporations and private schools can take taxpayer dollars meant for public education funding. The former chair of the Michigan Republican Party and married to the heir of the Amway fortune, DeVos is the founder and board chair of the American Federation for Children (AFC), which works across the country to promote her “school choice” agenda. According to campaign finance reports, the AFC has already funneled $1 MILLION into Pennsylvania politics this spring through the Students First PAC. (Last year AFC contributed $120,000 and in 2010 it paid $1.2 Million into the Students First PAC.)
DeVos got herself in a heap of hot-water next door in Ohio, which fined her a record $5.2 million for illegally shifting money into that state to support “school choice” candidates. [Associated Press, April 5, 2008] And Wisconsin also fined her group for political misconduct. Following these incidents, DeVos rebranded her organization as the current American Federation for Children, which also accepts donations from the likes of Charles and David Koch, the ultra-right-wing brothers. [The Nation, May 2011] The AFC then turns around and sends that money into states such as Pennsylvania, using the Students First PAC.
And DeVos is hardly alone. Last year, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “activists like Michigan’s Betsy DeVos, of the Amway fortune; the heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton; and three wealthy Main Line hedge-fund traders have doled out an astonishing $6-million-plus in campaign cash to top Harrisburg pols, while they and allies have spent millions more on rallies, inflammatory mailers and lobbyists.” Joel Greenberg, one of those Main Line hedge-fund traders from Philadelphia, serves on Betsy DeVos’s board at the American Federation for Children and was on Governor Corbett’s education transition team. And Gov. Corbett was a featured speaker at their national school choice summit in Washington D.C. last year. [Washington Independent, May 10, 2011]
So where is all that money going? Over on the other side of the state, Representative James Roebuck of the 188th District in Philadelphia is in the fight of his life. The ranking Democrat on the Pennsylvania House Education Committee, Roebuck has staunchly opposed voucher legislation. The Students First PAC has already poured $25,000 into his opponent’s campaign, which has also gained the support of the state’s most high-profile pro-voucher Democrat, State Senator Anthony Williams. Two years ago, Williams ran a campaign for governor against Dan Onorato with funding from the Students First PAC and received $5 million from three conservative hedge fund managers. [Philadelphia City Paper, March 28, 2012] These races are making strange bedfellows, with extremely conservative, avowedly anti-abortion donors joining forces with openly pro-choice Democratic candidates, because of their shared “school choice” agenda. [Philadelphia City Paper, April 20, 2012]
Over here in Yinzer Nation, we need to be paying attention. There are few people such as Rep. Roebuck standing between Gov. Corbett and his coveted voucher bill. Meanwhile, out-of-state billionaires like Betsy DeVos are playing games with Pennsylvania politics and privatizing public education is clearly the prize they are after. If Students First wins, Pennsylvania’s real students will come in last.