Who’s Behind the Assault on Public Education in Wisconsin?

by Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

August 1, 2018

(As prepared for a breakout session at the Wisconsin Public Education Network Summer Summit in Appleton on August 1.)

1. The assault didn’t come out of nowhere, and it didn’t come from the grassroots.

It’s the result of almost 50 years of rightwing propaganda assailing the role of government, with an unceasing chorus that says, “Everything public is bad and everything private is good.”

It’s been lavishly funded by the Koch Brothers and Richard Mellon Scaife and the Coors family, among others. It’s all spelled out, in gruesome detail, in Jane Mayer’s Dark Money and Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains.

2. In Wisconsin, five big groups lie behind the attack on public schools

--the Bradley Foundation

Since 2005, it has spent $108 million nationally on 130 groups. Here in Wisconsin, it’s money has gone to:

  • School Choice Wisconsin—$1.5 million
  • Wisconsin Institute on Law and Liberty—$3.6 million
  • Wisconsin Policy Research Institute—$13 million since 1997
  • MacIver Institute $1,080,000
  • Wisconsin Watchdog and Matt Kittle: $545,000

--Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children

Founded by Betsy DeVos, the American Federation for Children has spent $6.5 million since 2010 on outside electioneering activities to back candidates in Wisconsin who favor school vouchers. In return for this investment, state spending on vouchers has totaled $1.2 billion between 2011 and 2017.

One of the leaders of AFC in Wisconsin is none other than Scott Jensen, the disgraced former Speaker of the Assembly who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in the Caucus Scandal of 2010. He is arguably as powerful today as he was when he was Speaker, since he has Betsy DeVos’s millions in his pockets and he spends strategically during election time to smear Democratic candidates and help elect Republicans.

Betsy DeVos herself has given $79,000 to mostly Republican candidates in Wisconsin, and her entire family has given almost half a million dollars to candidates in Wisconsin. Last year she gave $100,000 to AFC’s independent expenditure committee in Wisconsin and another $25,000 to its Wisconsin PAC.

And she’s not shy about saying that she wants something back for all her largesse.

“I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence,” she wrote in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call in 1997. “They are right. We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment.

In Wisconsin, she’s gotten it.

--Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin

This is the Koch Brothers’ group, which is very active in Wisconsin, claiming thousands of members and having storefront offices in cities across the state.

It has spent $5.8 million since 2010 to keep Republicans in control, and it has lobbied heavily for school vouchers.

The head of AFP-Wisconsin is Eric Bott, who worked as Director of Environmental and Energy Policy for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. And before that, he was policy director for Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

--Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC)

Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce has spent $19.5 million since 2010 to keep Republicans in control. It’s the biggest lobbyist in the state, and has spent $5.2 million in the last decade on legislation it prefers, including school vouchers.

WMC’s chief lobbyist wrote in Wisconsin Business Voice that their victories have been “too numerous to mention,” adding: “WMC will dedicate considerable effort to supporting the legislators who stood with our members on pro-growth reforms this session,” he wrote. “We will also work hard to ensure that the right lawmakers are in place to tackle the unfinished business next session.”

--American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)

Co-founded in 1983 by Paul Weyrich and other conservative leaders, ALEC brings together rightwing state legislators and corporate executives from around the country to come up with “model” legislation and then urges the legislators to pass those bills in their home states.

ALEC, a big proponent of school vouchers, is very powerful in Wisconsin. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is an ALEC state co-chair. Senator Leah Vukmir is on the national board and chairman emeritus of ALEC.

According to Representative Chris Taylor, “For ALEC, it is all about tearing down our public school infrastructure so corporate privatization efforts can move in and make a buck.”

3. Billionaires

From 2010 through 2017, about four dozen extremely wealthy backers of school vouchers from around the country (many of them out of state) have contributed about $2.3 million to candidates for statewide office and the legislature in Wisconsin. These include:

  • Robert and Patricia Kern of Waukesha, founders of Generac Corp, who gave $303,090.
  • Foster Friess, of Jackson, Wyo., owner of Friess Associates, and his wife, Lynn, $163,200;
  • Dennis Kuester, of Naples, Fla., a retired M&I Bank chairman, and his wife, Sandy, $154,400;
  • Roger Hertog, a retired New York City financier, $125,000;
  • Bruce Kovner, a New York City hedge fund founder, and his wife, Suzie, $120,000.

Other big donors, since 2003, include:

  • John and Christy Walton, of Jackson, WY, and of the Walmart family, at least $122,000.
  • Jim and Lynn Walton, of Bentonville, AR, and of the Walmart family, at least $109,600.

4. The Good News

The public still believes in, and supports, public education. In the June Marquette Law School poll, when asked whether increasing spending on public schools or reducing property taxes is more important, 59 percent of Wisconsin residents favored increasing school spending, and just 35 percent said reducing property taxes.

That’s a flip and a big increase over four years ago: “When first asked in March 2014, 49 percent preferred to reduce property taxes while 46 percent favored increased spending for public schools,” according to the Marquette Law School poll.

So, despite all the propaganda, despite all the millions upon millions of dollars spent by the Bradley Foundation, Betsy Devos’s group, the Koch Brothers, ALEC, and WMC, the public in Wisconsin still supports public education.

It’s crucial that we make sure the public understands the private interests who are behind this assault on our public schools.

And it’s crucial that we ensure that the supporters of public education in Wisconsin get out and vote and defend this vital pillar of our democracy, this beating heart of our communities.

How dare these billionaires and rightwing libertarians tear down our public schools!

Let’s show them who’s boss.