Midterm elections present a particularly fruitful opportunity for the school privatization movement to maximize their investment. Since 1974, in mid-term or non-presidential election years, the federal election turnout has failed to reach 40% of eligible voters, as opposed to range of about 49% - 56% in presidential elections, thus providing an opportunity for energized voters to advance their issues in state-level races. While the results of the 2014 effort remain to be seen, this effect has been amplified by the impact of both the Tea Party movement and the millions of dollars of pro-privatization money being poured into elections in several states.
While most of the press coverage and national attention during midterm elections is focused on the composition of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, the privatization juggernaut has used these low-turnout elections to continue to increase its hold on state legislatures, where most decisions are made on education policy and funding.
“Private school choice” is the term used by its advocates to describe the state-level programs that use public dollars to fund private education, including tax credit programs and school vouchers. Advocates of school privatization have always focused on state elections, but by the late 1990s they had shifted their dollars and efforts from statewide ballot initiatives to a policy of rewards and consequences for individual state legislators—both Republican and Democratic—based on their position on school privatization. This strategy was described to a Heritage Foundation audience by leading privatization advocate Dick DeVos in 2002, as the strategy implemented in the late 1990s was beginning to yield results.
Although it’s now more than a decade old, the Dick DeVos speech to the Heritage Foundation is still useful in understanding the shift in strategy that has resulted in the success of the privatization movements after decades of rejection on state ballot initiatives. The video includes the explanation of the “rewards and consequences” strategy, which uses massive funding to support or attack state legislators in their home districts. DeVos explains the ongoing implementation of this strategy by his wife, Betsy DeVos, through the Great Lakes Education Project in their home state of Michigan. Betsy DeVos was then, and continues today, to be the “four star general” guiding the attack on public education, as she has been dubbed by Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The DeVos strategy has been implemented through single-interest nonprofits, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the conservative think tanks in all fifty states interconnected through the State Policy Network.
In addition to the shift from state ballot initiatives on vouchers to a “reward and consequences” for state legislators, DeVos also emphasized the need to continue an ongoing strategy for changing the face of “school choice” promotion. School privatization had been the domain of a small core group of wealthy, White, conservative donors, but by 2002 an effort was already well underway to recruit a public face for the movement that would be bipartisan, minority led, and appear to be a grass roots effort.
In the video, the covert nature of the strategy is stressed, as DeVos warns the Heritage Foundation audience that they need to “be cautious about talking too much about these activities,” including the need for school privatization to have a different face than their own.
“That has got to be the battle. It will not be as visible. And, in fact, to the extent that we on the right, those of us on the conservative side of the aisle, appropriate education choice as our idea, we need to be a little bit cautious about doing that, because we have here an issue that cuts in a very interesting way across our community and can cut, properly communicated, properly constructed, can cut across a lot of historic boundaries, be they partisan, ethnic, or otherwise.”
Here’s a two minute excerpt of the speech:
Dick and Betsy DeVos and their relatives have long been leaders in funding school privatization activism. Betsy heads the 501(c)(3) American Federation for Children (AFC), and its tax affiliated 501(c)(3) Alliance for School Choice—the two are the primary advocacy organizations behind the movement and the source of funding for many state nonprofits dedicated to this agenda. Also under the umbrella of the AFC advocacy is an array of political action committees or PACs, which fund candidates and the reward and consequences strategy in states across the nation.
In 2011, I tracked the money spent by AFC and its related entities in the 2010 midterm elections and mapped the history of primary nonprofits behind the privatization movement. Some of the products of this effort can be seen in a series of 2011 (list of links and summaries accessed in this article) and in the Summer 2012 issue of The Public Eye magazine (beginning on page three).