Part 5: Selling School Choice

For over 20 years, Arizona’s public schools have been under siege. Organized opposition has slashed education budgets and undermined public education. 

In the previous segment, we explored Arizona as a cautionary tale of what can (and will) go wrong as school privatization spreads through the states. Catch up here. 

Selling School Choice

Does “school choice” truly provide families choice, or is it possible that many families who seek educational choices for their children are being sold a bill of goods? It depends on the family. Families in wealthier suburbs with ample time and resources to provide lunches, transportation, after-school tutoring, and other amenities might find success.

The reality for most students, however, is that “school choice” is really the “school’s choice.” We see that play out when a special needs family receives a voucher, yet is rejected from one private school after another. Or when an English Language Learner is asked to waive language learning services since the elite private school doesn’t offer them. Or when a child who doesn’t quite look, learn or pray like the other kids in the school is told the school down the street might be a “better fit.”

The lexicon of privatizers is filled with carefully crafted euphemisms: “opportunity scholarships” and “empowerment accounts” are actually taxpayer-funded vouchers that subsidize unregulated private schools while siphoning funds from what they discredit as “failing government schools.” And the term “school choice” itself derives from an anti-government, anti-regulation, anti-taxation movement that has undercut public institutions for decades. 

So, who has pushed this false narrative of “school choice,” and how did it spread so quickly and effectively when it’s predicated on lies? 

One word: Money. Spreading information requires funding – a lot of it. Just the way Apple sells iPhones, or McDonald’s sells Big Macs, major funders have collaborated across the U.S. to sell “school choice.” And the special interests that have been pushing this false narrative for decades are not hard to identify. 

In the past decade, billions upon billions of dollars have been spent by special interests to privatize our public school systems and push policies that encourage draining public school budgets and siphoning funds to private and religious schools. 

Read on to find out more about the powerful billionaires funding these “school choice” voucher schemes, where the money is going, and how it’s been so effectively deployed.

Who's Funding the Sale of "School Choice"?

The groups pushing so-called “school choice” have a variety of motives (turning a profit, advancing religious beliefs, and limiting government), but one thing they have in common is deep pockets. 

The DeVos Family Foundation:

Betsy DeVos

Current U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos married into the DeVos family, which runs a powerful foundation that pushes  school privatization based on an evangelical, corporate ideology

The DeVos family has donated at least $200 million since the 1970s to think tanks, media outlets, political committees and advocacy groups, largely to further school privatization and public funding of Christian schools. Betsy DeVos (continued)

has repeatedly stated that her work with these organizations is to find “ways that will continue to advance God’s Kingdom.” She has since referred to the K-12 school system as a “monopoly” and a “dead end.” Here are some examples of the strategic ways the DeVos family has bankrolled “school choice”:

  • Spent nearly $250,000 in Arizona in 2016 to elect pro-voucher candidates
  • Spent $4.75 million on a pro-voucher campaign in Michigan in 2000, which voters overwhelmingly rejected
  • Gave at least $6.1 million directly to Michigan elections from 2006 through 2016 to expand for-profit charter schools 
  • Donated $200,000 to Florida gubernatorial candidate and voucher enthusiast Ron DeSantis weeks before the 2018 election, helping to save his floundering campaign. In 2019, the governor signed a $130 million voucher program into law.

The Koch Foundation:

Charles Koch(left) and David Koch

Brothers Charles and recently-deceased David Koch, heirs to their father’s oil refinery fortune, have built Koch Industries into the US’s second-largest private company. The Kochs’ libertarian, free market convictions fuel their battles to keep government regulation away from their businesses. 

The Kochs have waged a war on public education for decades. Holding $104 billion in collective wealth, their foundation has devised a multi-pronged political agenda to defund public education and privatize the school system nationally, state by state. (continued)

Their strategic mission to destroy public education has employed a massive propaganda campaign calling public schools “government schools” that are part of a “monopoly,” pushing for “innovation and reform” of our school system, decrying public schools as “one size fits all institutions” and demanding “school choice” at all costs. These carefully crafted words pervade the landscape, from think tank blogs to political speeches to talking heads. 

  • Over the past decade, the Kochs have invested in a shadowy network of euphemistically named organizations like “Yes Every Kid” and the “Libre Initiative,” which work to proliferate vouchers under the guise of helping low-income kids. 
  • Koch group “American Encore” has funneled outrageous amounts into governor races and ballot initiatives around the US, including more than $1.4 million to elect AZ Governor Ducey in 2014 and $500,000 to kill Prop 204, an Arizona school funding initiative which failed in 2012.

The Walton Foundation:

From left: Jim, Alice and Rob Walton

The Walton family, co-founders of the world’s largest retailer Wal-Mart, is the richest family in the US; their combined network has $196 billion in assets. Heavily influenced by then-president Ronald Reagan’s 1983 manifesto “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,” the Waltons vowed to drive reform through “school choice,” which melded with their free-market competitive philosophy. (continued)

Reagan himself had been advised by Milton Friedman, the libertarian originator of taxpayer-funded school vouchers. The Waltons committed to the promotion of school choice and vouchers, and have subsidized these efforts throughout the states:

The Bradley Foundation:

Richard Graber

With assets over $800 million, the Bradley family has one of the country’s most powerful foundations. This politically active and highly conservative family, which has made substantial contributions to the far-right John Birch Society, adopted the earliest push for diverting public funds to private schools in their home town of Milwaukee. Their troubling philosophy was illuminated when the Bradleys gave $1 million to Charles Murray to research and write “The Bell Curve,” (1994) which argues that most African Americans are biologically inferior, and educational resources should be allocated to the intellectual elite. 

From 2001-2011, the Bradley Foundation spent over $30 million in Wisconsin and throughout the U.S. bankrolling voucher expansions. (continued)

Now, according to internal documents discovered in 2017, the Bradley Foundation is methodically building a coalition of groups aimed at influencing state legislatures, from Arizona to Florida.

Who's Doing the Selling?

These powerful special interests have, as you’ve seen above, invested in candidate races. But their main influence derives from the shadowy network of think tanks that promote policy to lawmakers, manipulate the media, and prolifically churn out white papers, blogs, and videos that use cherry-picked data sets to prove pre-determined conclusions: that public schools are “failing” and the only way out is through vouchers. Here are some of the more prominent organizations that shape public perception in Arizona:

Americans for Prosperity:

Primarily funded by Koch Industries, but also by the DeVos Foundation, AFP promotes a “competition model” for our public school system, and has pushed for expansion of vouchers year after year in Arizona. At the 2017 Koch Donor Summit, the Kochs announced that they plan to spend $300-400 million to influence politics and public policy in the subsequent two years through AFP and other organizations. 

AFP was instrumental in pushing for universal voucher expansion in Arizona in 2017 (referred to the ballot by SOSAZ, and defeated by voters as Prop 305 in 2018). AFP pursued litigation against SOSAZ alleging irregularities with the signature collection process, a claim that was rejected by the Arizona Supreme Court. 

One of AFP’s primary tactics is glossy marketing campaigns touting the benefits of “school choice” through mailers, digital ads, and hired astroturf advocacy groups. Though they do not have to disclose funding or expenditures, AFP bragged in 2017 that they were spending $200,000 on just one of these campaigns. 

American Federation for Children:

The American Federation for Children was created and funded largely by Betsy DeVos. It was founded in Milwaukee in 1998, moved to Arizona in 2004, and then settled in Washington, DC in 2009. Its mission is promoting school choice, with a specific focus on advocating for taxpayer-funded private school vouchers. Arizona is one of the few states with a dedicated AFC affiliate, which directly lobbies lawmakers, pushes policy, recruits families to apply for ESA vouchers, and more.

AFC co-sponsored the “Education Savings Account Act” at its partner American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) April 2011 meeting in Cincinnati, where it became an ALEC bill available to all states, and was subsequently passed into law in Arizona. AFC creates promotional videos of cherry-picked parents and students bussed en masse  to legislative committee hearings to promote vouchers. 

Goldwater Institute:

The Goldwater Institute spends over $4 million each year to push anti-regulation policies and ALEC copycat legislation, to litigate on behalf of school choice and other libertarian ideals, and to lobby lawmakers. It has strong ties to Koch Industries and the Bradley Foundation. 

The Goldwater Institute was the primary force behind Senate Bill 1431, universal voucher expansion, in 2017. To coerce reluctant Republican lawmakers to vote for the unpopular bill, they and other groups introduced a cap of 30,000 students; however, upon passage of the bill, the Goldwater Institute immediately sent out a victory email stating: “Fifty years in the making, and tonight we closed the deal! Universal education savings accounts. There is a cap at 5,000 new kids per year; we will get it lifted.” 

Currently, the Institute has filed suit against the Arizona Department of Education and Superintendent Kathy Hoffman contending that it doesn’t have the authority to enforce rules governing the voucher program, that it cannot require parents who have misspent voucher money to reimburse the state, and that funding should not be dependent upon whether parents follow the law and file expense reports. 

American Legislative Exchange Council:

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a consortium of state lawmakers and corporate interests, who pay hefty dues each year to attend ALEC events and network with these lawmakers. ALEC has revenues of over $10 million per year from donations from corporations, as well as the Kochs, the Bradleys, and others.

ALEC works to achieve its ideal “limited government” by drafting and propagating “model” legislation, which is replicated across states regardless of need. ALEC produces sample bills on myriad issues, including private school vouchers. The 2011 legislation that introduced ESA vouchers in Arizona was ALEC copycat legislation, and so was 2017’s universal voucher expansion bill. 

In Arizona, ALEC-generated bills have dominated the state legislature for years. A 2019 expose by the Arizona Republic and the Center for Public Integrity, “Copy, Paste, Legislate,” found that Arizona was second among all the states for copycat legislation, introducing at least 209 ALEC bills in a 2-year time period.

State lawmakers once drafted bills based on constituent needs; now, lawmakers frequently sponsor and sign “copy/paste”bills pushed by Washington, D.C. special interests without knowing their content or questioning who they benefit or harm. In sum ALEC-approved representatives no longer represent their constituents. 

EdChoice:

Based in Indianapolis, EdChoice was founded by Milton Friedman, the controversial free-market economist who originated the concept of voucher programs in his 1955 essay “The Role of Government in Education.” Friedman advocated for turning the entire public education system over to the free market, claiming that competition would improve schools, cost less and yield superior educational outcomes. When speaking at an ALEC meeting in 2006, Friedman insisted, “The ideal way would be to abolish the public school system… how? Vouchers.” 

The organization’s mission is to advance “school choice for all children” nationwide, with an annual operating budget of about $4.5 million in undisclosed funding. EdChoice ranks Arizona #1 in school choice due to its exponentially increasing ESA and STO voucher funds, despite the fact that Arizona public schools are 46th in the nation in student spending. Well-paid EdChoice lobbyists work closely with state lawmakers around the country to push school choice bills year after year. 

The Heritage Foundation:

Heritage Foundation

The Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973, played an instrumental role during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The foundation’s “Mandate for Leadership” became a blueprint for Reagan in his bid to shrink government, and remains one of the most influential conservative think tanks in the country, driving policy in every presidential administration. It  has received countless millions from the Kochs, the Bradleys, the DeVos family, the Waltons, the Coors, and many other wealthy families and corporations. The organization has a yearly operating budget over $80 million. Their research (slanted to achieve their predetermined conclusions) is used to influence policy at the national and state levels, and in 2017 they launched a new arm focusing on K-12 school choice called the Center for Education Policy. 

Currently, the Heritage Foundation is producing white papers to convince lawmakers not to fund public schools during the COVID pandemic, and to instead fund vouchers. 

The Cato Institute:

The Cato Institute was founded in 1974 by Charles Koch, along with Ed Crane and Murray Rothbard, who believed in the voluntary separation of races and spoke admiringly of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan. It currently serves as a “think tank” for incubating new libertarian ideas and fights for elimination of the IRS and Federal Reserve. Through 2016, the Cato Institute received $2.5 million from the Bradley Foundation. In 2012, the New York Times reported that the Kochs had donated more than $30 million to the organization.

According to its website, the Cato Institute takes a position against public schools, arguing that the country should “break up the longstanding government monopoly” of public schools. They push policies at the state level to “institute school choice on a broad scale, moving toward a competitive education market.”

Thomas B. Fordham Institute:

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute sells itself as “America’s leading education reform think tank.” As stated earlier, “reform” is typically a dog whistle for school choice. With an operating budget of $4.5 million, the Institute churns out op-eds, white papers, blogs, and essays at a breakneck pace. The Institute is funded by the Bradley Foundation and the Walton Foundation, as well as many other “reform”-driven organizations. It is currently disseminating non-stop podcasts, blogs, and webinars about redirecting education funding away from public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Institute for Justice:

Arizona Supreme Court Justice Clint Bolick, appointed by Gov. Ducey to the Arizona Supreme Court in 2016, co-founded the anti-regulation, pro-privatization Institute for Justice with funding from Charles Koch in 1991, and served as its Vice President for 13 years. 

With a yearly operating budget of $28 million, the Institute focuses on high-level litigation and legislative reform. Funders include the Kochs and the DeVos Foundation.

Currently, IJ is litigating Espinoza v. Montana, a landmark case which requires the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether the U.S. Constitution can force states to fund religious education in violation of state Constitutions that bar taxpayer support for religious activities. The case was argued on Jan 22, 2020, and is expected to issue a ruling in summer 2020. If the U.S. Supreme Court finds in favor of the Espinoza plaintiffs, it will eliminate state constitutional amendments that prohibit state funding of religious schools, called Blaine Amendments. This would open the floodgates to publicly-funded private religious education all around the US.

Conclusion

The billions of dollars spent to create and disseminate the “school choice” propaganda campaign are staggering. But when you listen to the individuals and organizations pushing this agenda, it’s easy to see why to them, these billions of dollars are a small investment that will have major returns. In their eyes, K-12 education is an “untapped monopoly” with an annual budget of $200 billion. The potential profit margin in privatizing public education is astronomical. In reality, from traditional neighborhood schools to STEM and Arts schools, from magnet schools to Montessori, America’s public schools offer robust choices and serve all children. Selling “school choice” is not about our kids, it’s about profit and the real question is, will the American people fall for the propaganda, or can we come together and save the foundation of our democracy, our public schools?

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