Out-of-state school choice cash winning votes, splitting Democrats
This is ugly. And it's scary.Put "Federation for Children" into a search on my site, and 11 hits for American Federation for Children will come up. Reading them will make your skin crawl. You can only put 2 adjacent words into a search (little words like 'for' don't count)--and "American Federation" would bring up lots of other stuff too. The site search function works. You just have to learn how to choose your words.
by Matt Dixon
Over the past five years, a multimillion-dollar effort by a small number of deep-pocketed school-choice advocates has tried to sway state-level elections and rewrite education laws across the country.
Nowhere is the push more evident than Florida.
The small cadre of school-choice backers has been successful in swaying a bloc of Florida House Democrats to support issues largely opposed by their party and unanimously supported by Republicans. The donors are charter school board members, think-tank founders and investors with an eye for education reform.
Since 2006, roughly 15 of them from New York to California have funneled $233,651 to 25 Democratic candidates in Florida. In addition, two political action committees have spent $5.5 million buying mailers and conducting polls for candidates they support in Florida.
Winning candidates who received support often buck party lines on issues pushed by school-choice proponents. The biggest recipient is former House member and current state Senate candidate Terry Fields, a Jacksonville Democrat who since 2004 received $26,500.
The donors seek to strengthen school choice through voucher and charter schools that they say allow parents an alternative. Opponents, historically Democrats and unions, argue the push shifts resources to poorly run, less-accountable schools. In Duval County, 10 of the 23 charter schools opened since 2000 have closed due to poor performance.
"Yes, there is some tension there," said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, of Democrats who support school-choice legislation; she isn't one. "There are those of us believe there should be accountability, and others who don't."
Democrats who back school-choice measures say their votes are based on what is best for their constituents. One, Rep. Mack Bernard, D-West Palm Beach, has received $13,600 from school-choice backers since 2008.
"When you have some failing schools in your district," he said, "my approach is to just continue to say, 'Hey, people in my district should get another option.'"
A bloc of roughly 15 elected Democrats have consistently voted over the past two years in favor of school-choice priority bills: one to expand the McKay Scholarship, which allows disabled students to choose which school they attend; another expands virtual schools; and yet another further expands the income tax credit scholarship program.
In 2010, 20 Democrats voted for a bill that would pump an additional $22 million each year into the income tax credit scholarship, which allows companies to divert tax income to create scholarships for low-income students. Of those, 16 had received a total of $103,750 in campaign contributions from school-choice proponents since 2008.
When lawmakers created the program in 2001, it received the support of only one Democrat.
Of the roughly $233,000 that those groups have sent to Florida Democrats since 2007, nearly two-thirds has gone to African-American candidates.
Fields was one of the first Democrats whom school-choice proponents started backing regularly. The 2012 Senate candidate said he began supporting school-choice issue when a group of constituents questioned why he didn't support the corporate income tax scholarship program.
"A lot of these kids grew up just like I grew up. They were kids from the inner core, poor kids," he said. "Right then I had a change of heart."
Fields pledged to support the tax-credit scholarship in 2004 and four months later received $7,000 in campaign contributions from out-of-state school choice backers. In addition, his political action committee received $41,000 from school choice proponents.
The American Federation for Children, a nonprofit whose political action committee has spent nearly $5 million since early 2010, says the benefits of school choice in districts with poor public schools has led many black Democrats to jump party lines.
"I believe that the reason that African-American Democrats are receptive to the parental choice message is very simple: Their constituents strongly desire it," said John Kirtley, the group's vice chairman who heads its Florida branch.
Public education advocates don't see it that way.
"We have a concern what is occurring is a very deliberate effort to resegregate the schools," said Ron Meyer, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association. "Many are taking these vouchers and going to unregulated and substandard public schools."
The money people
In 2004, Michigan billionaires Betsy and Dick DeVos founded All Children Matter, a political action committee that spent $7 million in at least six states, including $4.1 million in Florida, records show. The organization went belly-up in 2008 after being fined $5.2 million for illegal campaign contributions in Ohio.
Betsy DeVos, who through a spokesman declined comment, then started the American Federation for Children. The group's PAC has spent nearly $5 million in six different states, including $900,000 in Florida. Its nonprofit arm spent more than $2.1 million in 2009, according to its most recent IRS filing. That year it spent $824,157 on grants, and $367,242 on lobbying.
"The amount we invest in supporting educational opportunity for low-income children pales in comparison to the massive political and lobbying apparatus employed by the national teacher's unions, which spend upwards of $100 million a year on politics and lobbying and make enormous investments in state-level races," spokesman Andrew Campanella said.
Since 2007, the National Education Association funneled $3.2 million to Public Education Defense Fund run by Florida teachers union. It has spent $16.1 million on federal races since 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Another large supporter of state-level candidates in Florida and beyond is New York real estate developer and political activist Howard Rich. Through 14 companies he owns, Rich has funneled $31,500 to Florida House candidates.
Who got what
A group of Florida Democratic lawmakers have received more than $200,000 in campaign contributions since 2006 from out-of-state interests that back school choice. Those lawmakers have often vote in favor of legislation that expands school choice measures. They say their vote is about bringing choice to districts with poor public schools, not campaign cash.
- Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington: $5,000
- Rep. Mack Bernard, D-West Palm Beach: $17,000
- Rep. Debbie Boyd, D-Newberry: $5,450
- Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens: $17,500
- Former Rep. Ronald Brise, D-North Miami; current member of the Public Service Commission: $13,500
- Rep. Charles Chestnut, D-Gainesville: $7,000
- Rep. Gwyn Clarke-Reed, D-Pompano Beach: $9,850
- Former Rep. Terry Fields, D-Jacksonville; running for state Senate: $26,500; $41,000 to Florida Fresh Start, a political action committee he heads
- Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami: $5,450
- Former Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg: $12,451
- Pat Felder-Lockett, Jacksonville Democrat; ran for the Florida House in 2008: $8,750
- Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole: $16,000
- Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa: $11,450
- Rep. Hazel Rogers, D-Lauderhill: $10,000
- Rep. Darryl Rousson, D-St. Petersburg: $8,000
- Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray: $5,750
- Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West: $13,750
- Former Rep. Michael Scionti, D-Tampa: $6,500
- Sean Shaw, Tallahassee Democrat; ran for the Florida House in 2010: $6,000
- Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach: $20,750
- Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek: $8,000
The main money people
- Arthur Danichuk, Pennsylvania: Co-founded investment firm Susquehanna International. Gave $450,000 to Students First, a pro-voucher political action committee in Pennsylvania; $2,000 to Florida Democrats in 2010; $100,000 to American Federation for Children.
- Jeff Yass, Pennsylvania: Co-founded investment firm Susquehanna International; board member, Save the Children. $2,000 to Florida Democrats in 2010; $433,000 to American Federation for Children.
- David Brennan, New York: President of White Hat Management, an Akron, Ohio-based company that operates charter schools. $15,500 to Florida Democrats since 2008; $39,000 to American Federation for Children Action Fund; $100,000 All Children Matter in 2006 and 2007.
- Howard Rich, New York: Founder Legislative Education Action Drive; chairman, Americans for Limited Government. $34,500 to Florida candidates since 2007 through 13 different companies; has spent at least $4 million on pro-voucher school programs in other states.
- John Griffin, New York: Blue Street Capital; founder of John and Amy Griffin Foundation, non-profit that supports charter schools. $7,000 to Florida Democrats; $7,150 more to Florida candidates through Blue Ridge Capital.
- Betsy DeVos, Michigan: Former head of the Michigan Republican Party; started All Children Matter, a political committee that spent $2.6 million in Florida before folding; founded second PAC, American Federation for Children. Groups has spent nearly $5 million nationwide, and $900,000 in Florida since early 2010.
- John Kirtley, Tampa: American Federation for Children, vice-chair. $25,000 to Florida candidates since 2007; $80,000 to American Federation for Children; $24,000 to Florida Fresh Start, PAC run by former Rep. Terry Fields, D-Jacksonville; $32,500 to All Children Matter. Also founded the Florida Committee for Educational Freedom; spent $15,177 between 2006 and 2008.
- Mark Gerson, New York: $25,000 to Florida candidates since 2007; $1,000 to Florida Fresh Start, political action committee run by Fields.
- Whitney Tilson, New York: Founded T2 Partners, LLC; board member, KIPP Charter School in New York. $9,500 to Florida candidates since 2007.
- John Fisher, San Francisco: KIPP Charter School, chairman. $175,000 to All Children Matter; $50,000 through RWJ Education Company I, LLC to American Federation for Children; $4,500 to Florida candidates since 2009.
- Joel Greenburg, Pennsylvania: Board member, American Federation for Children; former co-chair of Pennsylvania GOP Gov. Tom Corbett's education team; co-founded investment firm Susquehanna International. $709,000 to American Federation for Children; $3,000 to Florida candidates since 2007; $17,500 to Pennsylvania Political Action Committee Students First.
- John Bryan, Lake Oswego, Ore.: $50,000 to American Federation for Children; $47,000 to All Children Matter.
- Brian Zied, New York: Founder of Charter Based Capital, a New York-based hedge fund; board member at KIPP Charter School in Manhattan. $2,000 to Florida Democrats in 2008; $5,000 to Fields' PAC.
INDEX OF OUTRAGES