Public schools in Wisconsin will have to make do with $800 million less from the state over 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.
And, for that, these private schools can thank Alice Walton and her family.
Walton, the multi-billionaire heiress to father Sam Walton’s Walmart empire, was the largest individual contributor to successful state legislative candidates in the 2009-2010 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, a horse lover and arts patron who lives in Millsap, Texas, gave a total of $16,100 during this cycle 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 contributing to Wisconsin candidates include Alice’s brother and sister-in-law Jim and Lynne Walton, sister-in-law Christy Walton, 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. Walmart’s political action committee gave another $9,750 to successful legislative candidates in the 2010 election cycle, according to MapLight.
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 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,” says state Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison. “They’ve become the most powerful lobbying entity in the state.”
And in fact, the advancement of school choice in Wisconsin has long benefited from interested outsiders.
In 1997, a group of school choice supporters spent $200,500, more than half from out of state, on postcards and calls to help re-elect state Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox. The state Elections Board sued, alleging illegalities. Wilcox and others eventually paid $60,000 in fines — but not before he voted to uphold the constitutionality of Milwaukee’s pioneering voucher program, launched in 1990.
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.
Across the nation, proponents of school choice are sensing opportunity. The National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan policy group, reports that so far this year bills to create voucher programs have been introduced in at least 30 states, and tax credits to those paying private school tuition or giving to private school scholarship funds have been proposed in at least 28 states.
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. (Click here for a state-by-state map.)
And 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,” says Robert Enlow, president of the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, a nonprofit group that advocates for school choice. The state, he says, is notable for “the high level of scholarship amounts that families can get.” And he’s pleased that Wisconsin is “catching up with the rest of the country” in expanding choice options to other communities, such as Racine.
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,” says 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
Voucher advocates say they just want to give students an alternative to failing public school systems, which encourages the public schools to do better.
Alice Walton and other family members did not respond to multiple interview requests placed through the Walton Family Foundation since early August. But the 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.
The report cites statistics showing that “the number of children attending their designated public school measurably declined between 1993 and 2007 — from 80 percent of the student population down to 73 percent.”
The Walton Family Foundation highlights “systemic K-12 education reform” as one of the areas in which it is “making a positive difference.” In 2010 it invested $157 million in this cause, 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; $275,000 to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for research and evaluation; and a total of $496,000 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 multi-year assessment of Milwaukee’s school choice program (see sidebar), including a report earlier this year that has been criticized as too rosy.
The Waltons are part of a network of groups and individuals pouring money into the state’s political process to advance the cause of school choice.
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.
The largest legislative recipient of individual and PAC donations from school choice supporters in 2009-2010 was state Senate candidate Van Wanggaard, at $14,399, according to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Wanggaard, R-Racine, defeated the incumbent, John Lehman, D-Racine, then chairman of the Senate’s education committee.
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, maximizing their impact.
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.
Propelling the fund are a number of prominent players in the school choice arena, including Betsy and Dick DeVos, the Michigan-based billionaire heirs to the Amway fortune, who have given $39,250 since 2008, according to the state Government Accountability Board.
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 single 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
Betsy and Dick DeVos are also main players in the American Federation for Children. Launched in January 2010, the group is an offshoot of an earlier DeVos effort called All Children Matter, which was fined in Ohio and Wisconsin for violations of campaign finance laws.
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 and include Walmart heir Carrie Penner.
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 says. “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 says with a laugh.
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