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A volunteer waits to gather signatures for a recall petition against Sen. Alberta Darling (R) outside of a polling station at Village Center in Shorewood, Wisconsin, Tuesday, April 5, 2011. Darling has backed a plan to slash $800 million in funding for public schools across Wisconsin while at the same time scheming to shift tens of millions from the state treasury into the accounts of private schools.

Right-Wing Billionaires Invest in Wisconsin's Recall Elections to Save School Privatization Agenda

John Nichols

 by The Nation

As co-chair of Wisconsin’s powerful legislative Joint Finance Committee, Alberta Darling was charged by Governor Scott Walker with cobbling together the most anti–public education budget in Wisconsin history. And Darling delivered, with a plan to slash $800 million in funding for public schools across Wisconsin while at the same time scheming to shift tens of millions from the state treasury into the accounts of private schools.

She was delivering for American Federation for Children (AFC), the powerful national network of billionaire campaign contributors that has been pouring millions into school privatization fights across the country.

AFC is not just shaping the agenda in Wisconsin. Like the American Legislative Exchange Council, which produces model legislation designed to shape state agendas on a host of policies, AFC outlines legislative goals, crafts specific proposals and then works with allied legislators and governors to implement it’s agenda.

It is in the forefront of high-stakes school “choice,” voucher and privatization fights in Pennsylvania, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana and the District of Columbia.

Organized by Michigan billionaires Dick and Betsy DeVos, Americans for Children is officially nonpartisan. But Dick DeVos is a former Republican nominee for governor of Michigan and Betsy DeVos is a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party. Together, they have poured tens of millions of dollars into the ideological and electoral infrastructure that supports school privatization.

“Dick DeVos has used his family’s fortune and status to create an intricate national network of nonprofits, political action committees and federal groups known as 527s that effectively fund the political arm of the school voucher movement,” notes a People for the American Way study of the political projects of the heir to the Amway fortune and his wife. “Nowhere is the impact of the DeVos family fortune greater, though, than in the movement to privatize public education.”

AFC chair Betsy DeVos has for decades been a high-stakes political player on behalf of school privatization. But that does not mean groups with which she is associated always play by the rules. One DeVos-led group, the political action committee “All Children Matter,” was fined a record $5.2 million by the Ohio Elections Commission after being charged with illegally shifting money into the state to support candidates considered friendly to private-school “choice” initiatives. It was also fined for political misconduct in Wisconsin, where the group’s 2006 campaigning violated campaign finance laws by expressly urging voters to cast ballots against legislative candidates who backed public education.

Those troubles led to the evolution of “All Children Matter” into “American Federation for Children,” which has collected money from a who’s who of right-wing billionaires, including the political operations of Charles and David Koch—top donors to Scott Walker’s 2010 campaign and, in the case of David, the subject of a much-publicized prank phone call to Walker during the current dispute in Wisconsin.

Ardent backers of Walker and his legislative agenda, Americans for Children “spent an estimated $820,000 on independent expenditures and phony issue ad activity in the 2010 fall legislative races,” according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

AFC has reprotedly spent more than $500,000 in television ads to support Darling and other Republicans facing recall elections because of their support for Walker’s anti-labor legislation.

The group does not want to lose its grip on policymaking in Wisconsin—a state they hope to position as a national leader in the fight for school privatization.

In particular, they want to keep Darling in charge of the Joint Finance Committee and the legislative processes that could make Wisconsin the testing ground for radical school-choice initiatives.

In June, as Darling was promoting Walker’s budget and new school privatization measures, watchdog groups filed an open records request seeking her office’s letters, e-mails and correspondence relating to the effort. For two months, Darling refused. Finally, One Wisconsin Now filed a lawsuit demanding that the senator be compelled to obey the law.

Darling finally released the documents and they reveal that her office was regularly e-mailing with advocates from… the American Federation for Children.

Darling may want to gut public education. But she cannot change the math: one plus one equals two. And a legislator who spends months refusing to release details of her dealings with a powerful interest group really does have something to hide—just as her constituents have reason to wonder whether their senator’s ID shouldn’t read: Alberta Darling, R-Privatized Schools.

Darling is certainly not alone. Republican legislators across the country are aligning with AFC, and carrying its agenda.

© 2017 The Nation
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