The Voucher Lobby
Lobbying for school choice provides big money for Republicans.
The word was out last year that Republican Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald intended to retire and make the big money working as a lobbyist. Two days after his term was up, he signed up as a lobbyist for School Choice Wisconsin.
Fitzgerald’s decision underlined the ironic facts of life in Wisconsin. Choice Schools may be badly underfunded, getting just $6,442 per pupil in public funding (about half of what public schools get), and may often pay lousy salaries to teachers. But those who lobby for school choice are doing just fine, thank you. Indeed, the pay is so good that three former Republican Assembly Speakers now do lobbying and advocacy for school choice.
The first to jump aboard the gravy train was former Speaker (and key figure in the legislative caucus scandal) Scott Jensen, who works for two Washington D.C.-based groups that work to increase School Choice funding: the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice, two sister organizations located at the same address, 1660 L Street NW, Suite 1000. Both groups have a key consultant, Chartwell Strategic Advisors, the one-man consulting company run by Jensen from his Brookfield home. In 2011, the most recent for which these groups filed federal income tax forms, Jensen earned $202,972, including $102,7346 from the American Federation for Children and $100, 236 from the Alliance for School Choice.
These groups have often worked to influence issues and elections in Wisconsin. A report by the American Federation for Children bragged that “With expenditures of $2,392,000, [AFC] engaged in hard-fought, successful battles to ensure educational choice majorities in both chambers of the Legislature” in Wisconsin, as the the Badger Herald reported.
The primo pro-voucher group based in this state is School Choice Wisconsin, located in Milwaukee at 219 N. Milwaukee St., whose 2011 federal tax form shows has a budget of just over $1 million, with $300,000 of that coming from the conservative Bradley Foundation. Susan Mitchell served for many years as its president, making more than $200,000 in total compensation. In July 2011 she was succeeded by Jim Bender, whose compensation (based on the partial year of 2011) looks like it will be even higher. Bender had previously served as assistant to Fitzgerald when he was Assembly Speaker. Small wonder Fitzgerald has been taken on as a lobbyist.
School Choice Wisconsin has also used former Speaker John Gard as a lobbyist. The group garnered about $5.4 million in grants and contributions from 2006 through 2011, and spends about $20,000 a year on lobbying in 2009 through 2011. School Choice Wisconsin has relied on the Mequon-based Simons Plantenberg Consulting to do its fundraising: it raised $661, 875 in 2011 (and was paid $90,954) and $836,200 in 2010 (and was paid $87,683).
Jay Heck, Common Cause Director told the Associated Press it was “pretty amazing” that three former speakers now lobby on school choice issues. “I’ve never seen that,” Heck said. “I wonder if the three of them will get together on a conference call and plot strategy.”
School Choice and Special Education
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice recently wrote a directive informing the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction it must take steps to insure that voucher schools do not discriminate against special education students. This could change the landscape for school choice in Wisconsin.
The directive cited the complaints of advocacy groups for disabled children, who filed a legal complaint in June 2011 which claimed that just 1.6 percent of the 21,000 students enrolled at the time in private voucher schools had special education service plans, compared with 20 percent of students in Milwaukee Public Schools.
Voucher supporters have taken issue with these figures, pointing to a study of school choice in Wisconsin which estimated that 11.4 percent of voucher students had a disability, compared with the 20 percent of MPS students.
Either figure suggests voucher schools have a much smaller percentage of special education students. The percentage in MPS has been steadily growing, both because the overall number of special education students keeps rising and because the percentage of regular students in MPS declines as ever more attend choice schools. This has imposed huge costs on MPS because federal and state requirements to provide expensive special education services have never been fully funded. For the 2011-2012 year, MPS spokesperson Tony Tagliavia notes, the state paid just 23.75 percent of special education costs and the federal government paid just 18.64 percent of the costs, leaving MPS to pay for nearly 58 percent of the costs.
Voucher supporters have long resisted having any oversight of choice schools by DPI, arguing that freedom from state standards and requirements is a key factor that makes these schools unique. This federal ruling opens the door to more oversight by DPI.
However, it could be a staff-intensive task for DPI to patrol every mom-and-pop choice school to determine whether it is rejecting special education students. And you can bet the Republican-controlled legislature and all the ex-Republican Assembly speakers who are now part of the voucher lobby will do their best to oppose the use of any DPI funding to police this federal directive.
The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has filed a complaint against the American Federation for Children “for allegedly failing to disclose about $2 million in funds used to influence races.”
All told, the group spent $2.4 million in influencing races, although it only disclosed $345,000 to the GAB, the complaint charged. The complaint cites the report by the American Federation which bragged about spending $2.4 million to elect educational choice majorities in both houses of the Legislature.
Technically, the $2 million additional spent on these elections was in the form of “issue ads,” which are not supposed to be used to influence elections. But as Wisconsin Democracy Campaign head Mike McCabe noted in a story by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice about the American Federation, “They’re saying candidates won, in part, because of…phony issue ads. This shows what a sham this whole game is.”
Correction: An earlier version of this column grossly inflated the amount that Simons Plantenberg Consulting received from School Choice Wisconsin in 2011 and 2010; most of that money it raised went to School Choice Wisconsin and the consultant received a portion of it back as a fee, as noted in corrected paragraph. The column also inflated the amount the group spent on lobbying. My apology for the errors.
People: Dan Bice, Jeff Fitzgerald, Jim Bender, John Gard, Mike McCabe, Scott Jensen, Susan Mitchell, Tony Tagliavia
Government: Department of Public Instruction, Milwaukee Public Schools, United States Department of Justice