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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Issue of the Week: Voucher Backers Buy State Government—Again

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Wealthy supporters of school vouchers lavished an eye-popping $10 million on Wisconsin campaigns in the past 10 years, spending half of that amount in 2011 and 2012 alone, according to a new analysis by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC).

The bulk of those millions came from out-of-state right-wing donors such as Richard and Betsy DeVos of Michigan, who have donated $337,330 to Wisconsin candidates since 2003; Wal-Mart’s Walton family heirs scattered around the country; and Republican mega-donors Foster and Lynnette Friess, who underwrote Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign and have spent $117,200 on Wisconsin candidates over the years.

Not surprisingly, Republican Gov. Scott Walker was the big winner, raking in more than $2.35 million from individuals and groups that want to expand vouchers in Wisconsin. The WDC found that most of that came in during his June 2012 recall defense campaign, when out-of-state voucher-supporting contributors gave him $1.1 million, and the Washington, D.C.-based American Federation for Children—which now employs Scott Jensen, the controversial former Republican legislative leader—spent $1.1 million on ads to support him.

Of course, right-wing voucher supporters had many reasons to thank Walker during his recall, since he was in the midst of delivering on long-held conservative dreams by crushing public employee unions—including the teachers unions—and expanding the voucher program beyond Milwaukee’s borders while exempting these experimental (and largely religious) schools from accountability measures. Walker’s gone even further this year by proposing to establish voucher schools in nine additional communities, whether residents want them or not, and offering vouchers to special needs students who want to attend private schools.

But Walker, of course, cannot expand vouchers on his own, which is why the wealthy donors have been generous with other members of state government.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser received $130,000 from voucher donors, primarily for his costly recount in 2011, WDC found. But his fellow conservative justices on the bench—Annette Ziegler, Michael Gableman and Pat Roggensack—have also raked in tens of thousands of dollars from voucher supporters. So if Walker’s voucher expansion comes before the state Supreme Court anytime soon, don’t be surprised if the voucher-supporting justices rule in favor of their campaign donors. They know what’s expected of them.

State Republicans have cashed in too, including Joint Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills ($57,800), Sen. Leah Vukmir of Wauwatosa ($23,125) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald ($20,650), for example. Even the Republican state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen collected $33,610 from voucher supporters. No wonder why the state does nothing to crack down on fraudulent, fly-by-night voucher school operators.

It’s a shame that these out-of-state, wealthy extremists are able to use our children to try to impose their right-wing and naïve experiment on our education system by buying our state government. Aren’t Republicans supposed to support local control of Wisconsin schools? Let’s focus on what is best for our kids. Wouldn’t it be better to invest in improving public schools that educate the vast majority of Wisconsin students and halt the spread of these unaccountable, poorly performing voucher schools?