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Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Wall Martization of our schools

From the Post

by Bill Leuders

Public schools in Wisconsin will have to make do with $800 million less from the state in the next two years, under the budget passed by Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-led Legislature.

But state spending on programs that provide public dollars to private schools will see a net increase of nearly $17 million. For that, these private schools can thank Alice Walton and her family.

Walton, the multibillionaire heiress to father Sam Walton's Walmart empire, was the largest individual contributor to successful state legislative candidates in the 2009-10 election cycle that brought Republicans to power in Wisconsin, according to data from MapLight, a nonpartisan organization that tracks the relationship between money and politics.

Walton gave a total of $16,100 to these candidates, the data show. In fact, six of the top 15 individual contributors to last fall's successful state legislative candidates were Walton family members.

Other members of the Walton clan who contributed to Wisconsin elections include Alice's brother and sister-in-law Jim and Lynne Walton; sister-in-law Christy Walton; and niece Carrie Penner and her husband, Greg Penner.

Collectively, these six individuals have given at least $103,450 to Wisconsin candidates since mid-2008, state records show.

But the Waltons' contribution to the state's choice program — which allocates tax dollars to private schools, most religiously affiliated — goes well beyond campaign contributions. The Walton Family Foundation is also a major funder of School Choice Wisconsin, the state's leading voucher advocate, and other state and national groups that play a role in school choice efforts in Wisconsin.

In just the past several months these efforts have produced major gains, including expanding school choice in Milwaukee and extending it to Racine. A vast and interconnected array of choice proponents, many from out of state, is changing the face of education in Wisconsin.

"The new 800-pound gorilla — actually it's more of a 1,200-pound gorilla — is the tax-funded-voucher groups," said state Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison. "They've become the most powerful lobbying entity in the state."

National movement

A dozen states and the District of Columbia have school choice programs in place, according to the American Federation for Children, a national school choice advocacy group.

But Wisconsin, home of the nation's first and largest school choice voucher program, in Milwaukee, is a key battleground.

"Wisconsin has a high level of value to the movement as a whole," said Robert Enlow, president of the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, a nonprofit group that advocates for school choice. The state, he said, is notable for "the high level of scholarship amounts that families can get."

Milwaukee's voucher program had 20,300 full-time equivalent voucher students at 102 private schools in 2010-11, compared to about 80,000 students at Milwaukee's public K-12 schools. The total cost, at $6,442 per voucher student, was $130.8 million, of which about $90 million came from the state and the rest from the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Critics see the school choice program as part of a larger strategy — driven into high gear in Wisconsin by the election of Walker and other Republicans — to eviscerate, for ideological and religious reasons, public schools and the unions that represent teachers.

"This is a national movement and they are trying to come into Wisconsin now that Republicans are in control to take this opportunity to expand school choice," said Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, a professional association for state school superintendents. "I think it is a serious attack on public education in Wisconsin and a watering down of one of the best public school systems in the nation."

The case for choice

The Walton Family Foundation states in an annual report that "increasing the quantity and quality of school choices available to parents" infuses competitive pressure into the educational system, resulting in improvements to all schools.

In 2010, the foundation invested $157 million in "systemic K-12 education reform," including efforts to shape public policy.

This includes $300,000 to School Choice Wisconsin; $250,000 each to three existing or proposed charter schools in Milwaukee and Madison; and nearly $500,000 to Marquette University's Institute for the Transformation of Learning, headed by school choice advocate Howard Fuller.

The Walton Family Foundation also gave at least $600,000 last year to the University of Arkansas' School Choice Demonstration Project, which is conducting a multiyear assessment of Milwaukee's school choice program.

In March, the Arkansas project released a report of Milwaukee's parental choice program that others have criticized as overly rosy. But the report found there was no significant difference in the performance of select choice students and similar Milwaukee public school students in the 2009-10 school year. That finding was affirmed by a report released in August by Wisconsin's nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction data, based on the test scores of all students, show that voucher students in Milwaukee's choice program performed worse on standardized tests in fall 2010 than students in Milwaukee public schools, especially in mathematics. This was true even among students categorized as "economically disadvantaged."

Direct contributions

An analysis by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign found that individuals and political action committees associated with school choice gave $125,220 in campaign contributions to Walker and another $181,627 to current legislators and committees, most of them Republicans, in the 2009-10 election cycle.

Foes of school choice, meanwhile, gave $25,650 to Walker's Democratic rival, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, and $217,734 in donations to current legislators, most of them Democrats, according to the group.

Both sides spent much more on independent electioneering activities, including ads and mailings, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign noted. In all, it estimated total spending at more than $3 million for school choice proponents and $1 million for opponents.

Many of the direct contributions to Wisconsin candidates from school choice proponents come through a conduit called the Fund for Parent Choice. Conduits bundle money from individual donors to present to candidates collectively.

The fund is administered by the Alliance for Choices in Education, an advocacy organization affiliated with School Choice Wisconsin, founded by Susan Mitchell of Whitefish Bay. Susan Mitchell and her husband, George, are major contributors to the fund.

It is the Fund for Parent Choice through which the Waltons make their contributions to state political campaigns.

From August 2008 to mid-August of this year, the Fund for Parent Choice funneled $354,400 in direct contributions to Wisconsin political campaigns, of which $312,000 was from out of state. More than 90 percent of these contributions have gone to Republican candidates. The largest beneficiary: Scott Walker, at $58,575.

Walker has been a prominent supporter of school choice. In May, he spoke before the annual meeting of the American Federation for Children in Washington, D.C.

"It's not only good for our children," he was quoted as saying. "I think when you make a commitment to true education reform, it's also good for your state's economy."

Behind the scenes

Another key player in the school choice issue is the American Federation for Children, headed by Betsy and Dick DeVos, the Michigan-based billionaire heirs to the Amway fortune.

According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, in the fall 2010 legislative races the federation spent an estimated $820,000 on independent expenditures and "phony issue ad activity" — ads that purport to raise issues but are meant to influence elections. These expenditures are not publicly disclosed.

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has calculated that the federation made television ad buys totaling $500,000 in three media markets in advance of this summer's recall elections, all on behalf of Republican incumbents. In those elections, Republicans lost two Senate seats but succeeded in maintaining a one-seat majority.

The federation shares a Washington, D.C., street address with Alliance for School Choice. The boards of directors of both groups are nearly identical; both are chaired by Betsy DeVos.

In 2010, the Walton Family Foundation gave $2.3 million to the Alliance for School Choice.

State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, co-chair of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee and a strong backer of school choice, suggests that all of this spending is a waste.

"I believe in school choice because I believe in school choice," Vos said. "It's not because of who I know or who talks to me."

Vos sees voucher programs as part of the solution to troubled public schools.

"It is not a panacea, not a silver bullet, it is not an answer for every single situation. In certain situations, however, I believe that it's an alternative that should definitely be utilized to try and make the lives of these kids in bad situations better."

In recent years, Vos has received $500 checks from both Alice and Christy Walton. Does he know these people personally?

"I wish I did," he said with a laugh.

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