$10 Million In 10 Years Drives School Agenda

Walker expanding program after millions in backing by voucher supporters

April 15, 2013

Madison – Wealthy campaign contributors and shadowy electioneering groups that back school voucher programs have spent nearly $10 million in 10 years in Wisconsin – much of it to help twice elect a governor who is trying to sharply expand the program, a Wisconsin Democracy Campaign review found.

Spending by school choice backers included $2.8 million in individual campaign contributions to mostly Republican and conservative candidates for statewide office and the legislature from 2003 through mid-2012, and $7 million for outside electioneering activities, like negative mailings and broadcast ads, from 2003 through 2012.

More than half of the $9.8 million in campaign contributions and outside spending – $5 million – by pro-voucher groups and individual supporters since 2003 occurred in the first 19 months of the 2011-12 election cycle when Republican Governor Scott Walker, the lieutenant governor and 13 state Senate seats were targeted for recall because of the governor’s successful plan to slash public employee collective bargaining rights (see Bar Chart). In the previous four, two-year election cycles, campaign contributions and outside election spending by voucher advocates had ranged from $751,925 to $1.6 million.

Campagin Contributions and Outside Spending by School Choice Supporters for Legislative and Statewide Candidates

Those persistent, generous campaign contributions and millions of dollars more in outside election spending by mostly out-of-state interests are keys to the program’s survival and growth.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, also known as the school voucher or school choice program, started in 1990 serving 300 Milwaukee public school pupils at a cost of about $734,000. Today two programs spend about $158 million in taxpayer dollars to send about 25,400 Milwaukee and Racine school children to private and religious schools. During the 23-year history of school choice in Wisconsin, backers have successfully defended its legality in court; expanded it even under eight years of a democratic governor who opposed it; and repelled attacks about its educational quality, transparency, accountability and financial and mismanagement problems that led to criminal charges, convictions and prison time for administrators at some of the schools in the program.

Walker has received $2.35 million in campaign contributions and outside spending support from individuals and groups that back school vouchers since his first run for governor in 2006. Virtually all of that support – $2.2 million – came for his June 2012 recall race when mostly out-of-state school choice supporters contributed $1.1 million to his campaign and the Washington-based American Federation for Children spent $1.1 million on outside electioneering activities on Walker’s behalf.

Walker’s large bump in campaign contributions from school voucher supporters and outside spending by the American Federation for Children come amid his efforts before and after the recall election to expand the voucher program. During his 2006 and 2010 races for governor, Walker received no outside electioneering support from school choice groups, and $126,063 in individual contributions from supporters of the program.

But after Walker’s 2010 election and before his June 2012 recall the governor proposed a 2011-13 state budget that significantly increased funding, ended enrollment limits to increase the number of pupils who can join and geographically expanded the school voucher program beyond Milwaukee.

And Walker’s proposed a 2013-15 state budget currently being considered by the legislature continues to expand school choice. The governor wants to increase funding $73 million and potentially allow up to nine additional school districts throughout the state to join the program in the near future.

Over the years, school choice supporters have also targeted key members of the state’s legislative and judicial branches of government who develop, approve, fund and decide the legality of public policies like the voucher program (Table 1).

In the legislature, school choice backers focused their contributions and outside election efforts to help Republican legislators who were targeted in the 2011 and 2012 recall elections, and legislative leaders and their fundraising committees. And four Wisconsin Supreme Court justices who are considered the court’s conservative bloc collectively received $233,350 from school voucher backers from 2003 through mid-2012. One of those justices, Pat Roggensack, received an additional $35,500 in contributions from school choice supporters in early 2013 while she was running for reelection.

After Walker, the other top recipients include Supreme Court Justice David Prosser who received $130,000 from four out-of-state contributors to help pay for recount expenses after his 2011 reelection to the bench, GOP Senator Alberta Darling of River Hills – one of nine senators who faced a recall election in 2011 – who accepted $57,800 and the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate – one of the four committees used by Senate and Assembly Republican and Democratic leaders to raise campaign cash for elections – at $51,100.

In addition to substantial campaign contributions in key legislative races, groups pushing school choice expansion in the legislature have hired three former GOP Assembly speakers – Scott Jensen, John Gard and Jeff Fitzgerald – to lobby on the issue. Jensen works for the Washington D.C.-based American Federation for Children which has spent $4.4 million of the $7 million doled out by school choice backers since 2003 for outside electioneering activities.

Nearly two-thirds of the $2.8 million from school choice backers came from individuals outside the state. The Democracy Campaign found that $1.8 million or 63 percent came from contributors in California, Arkansas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, Virginia, Wyoming, Texas and Missouri among others compared to about $1 million, or 37 percent, from Wisconsin contributors.

Topping the list of school choice contributors (Table 2) to Wisconsin candidates were billionaires Richard and Betsy DeVos of Grand Rapids, Michigan who contributed $337,330 from 2003 through mid-2012 to Wisconsin candidates for statewide office and the legislature.

The DeVos family has backed the school choice cause nationwide for several years. Richard DeVos Jr. is a former unsuccessful candidate for Michigan governor, and his father of the same name founded Amway Corporation. Betsy DeVos is heavily involved with American Federation for Children and founded its predecessor All Children Matter which spent about $2.4 million on outside activities in Wisconsin elections from 2004 through 2008. Walker was the top recipient of the couple’s contributions at $252,600, including $250,000 during his recall election when state election laws allowed the governor and other officeholders targeted for recall to collect unlimited contributions from individuals.

Behind the DeVos family are Robert and Patricia Kern, owners of Generac Power Systems in Waukesha who contributed $302,700. Most of that, $200,000, went to Walker during his recall contest. Like many other school choice supporters, the Kerns have contributed mostly to Republican candidates and conservative candidates. The couple’s Kern Family Foundation supports school voucher and other alternative education programs, pastoral training and engineering education. Robert Kern was a major backer – to the tune of $250,000 – of All Children Matter between 2005 and 2007.

Rounding out the top three contributors were John and Josephine Templeton who oversee the Templeton Foundation in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania and contributed $150,200 to Wisconsin candidates. In addition to school choice, the Templetons are long-time supporters of Republican and conservative candidates and causes across the country like the Cato Institute and numerous state efforts to ban same-sex marriage. They gave $100,000 to help pay Prosser’s recount expenses after his 2011 reelection, $50,000 to Walker for his recall campaign and $200 to two GOP legislative candidates.

In addition to spending by individuals and groups whose key issue is school vouchers, powerful lobbying groups like the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce and two Milwaukee police and firefighter unions also back the program. WMC, the state’s largest business group, represents a wide array of powerful special interests like business, manufacturing, construction, road building, banking, natural resources, health care that made $63 million in campaign contributions to candidates for statewide office and the legislature from 2003 through mid-2012, including $20.2 million to the governor.

WMC and two conservative ideological groups – Wisconsin Family Action and Americans for Prosperity – which also back school voucher programs, have spent $24.2 million on outside spending since 2003 to help elect dozens of legislative and statewide candidates. These groups, which keep secret their fundraising and spending on election activities, spent an estimated $8.65 million on outside electioneering activities to help Walker win the 2010 general and 2012 recall elections.

Table 1
Contributions* From School Voucher Supporters
To Current Statewide Officeholders And Legislators

Name Party** Office Amount
Scott Walker R Governor $1,246,008
David Prosser NP Supreme Court $130,000
Alberta Darling R S08 $57,800
Committee to Elect a Republican Senate R Senate $51,100
Annette Ziegler NP Supreme Court $39,000
Michael Gableman NP Supreme Court $38,600
Tom Tiffany R S12 $34,950
J.B. Van Hollen R Attorney General $33,610
Terry Moulton R S23 $29,540
Republican Assembly Campaign Committee R Assembly $29,300
Pat Roggensack NP Supreme Court $25,750
Leah Vukmir R S05 $23,125
Scott Fitzgerald R S13 $20,650
Mary Williams R A87 $18,655
Joe Leibham R S09 $16,500
Mark Honadel R A21 $16,150
Lee Nerison R A96 $16,100
Luther Olsen R S14 $15,950
Sheila Harsdorf R S10 $15,900
Travis Tranel R A49 $13,500
Jeff Mursau R A36 $13,000
Jerry Petrowski R S29 $12,150
Rebecca Kleefisch R Lt. Governor $12,100
John Murtha R A29 $10,350

*Table shows current officeholders who received $10,000 or more from school choice supporters. Figures represent contributions to statewide officeholders from 2003 through June 2012 and to current legislators and legislative leadership committees from 2003 through July 2012.

**‘R’ means Republican and ‘NP’ means Nonpartisan.

Table 2
Contributions* From School Voucher Supporters
To Candidates For Statewide Office And The Legislature  

Name City State Employer Amount
Richard & Betsy DeVos Grand Rapids MI Alticor/Windquest $337,330
Robert & Patricia Kern Waukesha WI Generac Power Systems $302,700
John & Josephine Templeton Bryn Mawr PA Templeton Foundation $150,200
Dennis & Sandy Kuester Milwaukee WI M&I Bank $128,600
John & Christy Walton Jackson WY Walmart $122,100
Terry & Mary Kohler Sheboygan WI Windway Capital $117,875
Foster & Lynnette Friess Jackson WY Friess Associates $117,200
George & Susan Mitchell Whitefish Bay WI School Choice Wisconsin $115,500
William & Susan Oberndorf San Francisco CA SPO Partners $114,950
Jim & Lynne Walton Bentonville AR Walmart $109,600
San & Joanne Orr Wausau WI Wausau Paper $104,267
Roger Hertog New York NY Retired $100,000
Bruce Kovner New York NY Caxton Alternative Management $100,000
Howard Fuller & Deborah McGriff Milwaukee WI Marquette University/ New Schools Venture Fund $88,980
Richard & Sherry Sharp Richmond VA V-10 Capital Partners $88,300
John & Laura Fischer San Francisco CA Pisces $79,500
Virginia James Lambertville NJ Retired $67,550
Michael W. Grebe Milwaukee WI Bradley Foundation $61,700
Rex Sinquefield Westphalia MO Show-Me Institute $55,000
David & Julia Uihlein Milwaukee WI Uihlein Wilson Architects $54,900
William & Patricia Hume San Francisco CA Basic American Foods $40,400
John Bryan Lake Oswego OR Eos Inc. $35,500
David & Ann Brennan Akron OH White Hat Management $31,000
H. Fisk Johnson Racine WI S.C. Johnson & Sons $30,000
Andrew & Janice Fleckenstein Waukesha WI Fleck Foundation $27,700
Arthur Dantchik Gladwyne PA SIG Financial Holdings $24,500
Peter Denton Palm Beach FL Retired $24,100
George Hume San Francisco CA Basic American Foods $23,500
Alice Walton Millsap TX Walmart $21,950
Greg & Carrie Penner Menlo Park CA Walmart $20,000

*Table show contributors who gave $20,000 or more to statewide officeholders from 2003 through June 2012 and to current legislators and legislative leadership committees from 2003 through July 2012.