School Vouchers: Big Money and Influence - WBAY

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School Vouchers: Big Money and Influence

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From the public persuasion to the closed-door meetings in Madison, the push to expand school vouchers comes with deep pockets and national influence.

"The bottom line is they've been able to build legislative majorities around the country," Mike McCabe said, president of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks political spending. "They've been able to identify people who are with them and are willing to vote with them."

McCabe says the money started flowing nearly a decade ago on both side.

"It started with hundreds-of-thousands of dollars," McCabe said. "It has since gone into seven figures."

Since Republicans took control of the State Capitol in 2010, and throughout the recall elections, there appears a shift.

Nearly $4.2 million since 2010, estimated by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, from a select number of pro-school choice groups and billionaires have written checks to lawmakers.

A majority have been Republican, some Democrat, but all supporting school vouchers.

Including in that is more than $1 million to Governor Walker, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign found.

  • Data from Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
    2009-10 Election Cycle
    *American Federation for Children, a Washington D.C.-based group spent an estimated $938,894 in legislative races
    *Fund for Parent Choice sent $188,800 individual contributions
    2011 Recall Elections
    *American Federation for Children spent an estimated $1.3 million
    *Fund for Parent Choice sent $47,500 in contributions
    2012 Recall Elections
    *American Federation for Children spent an estimated $1.5 million, including an estimated $1.1 million to Governor Walker alone and $400,000 in Senate recall races
    *Fund for Parent Choice sent $33,000 in contributions
    2012 Fall Elections
    *American Federation for Children spent $339,791
    *Fund for Parent Choice sent $30,900 in contributions

"Why are high-paid lobbyists, former Assembly speakers, why are they so invested in getting vouchers in Green Bay?" school board member Mike Blecha asked.

While critics of expansion are quick to point to the money, supporters and those receiving the checks are just as quick to dismiss it.

"I think people who support school choice support candidates who support their ideas," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said. "It's not the reverse. I don't take a position because someone gives me money."

Influencing the conversation behind the scenes are three former Assembly speakers - John Gard, Jeff Fitzgerald and Scott Jensen -- now working for pro-voucher groups.

"All this other criticism and finger pointing and polarizing activity is all about trying to take the focus off what it should be, and that is the kids," Gard said in an interview at a recent event.

Publicly, the persuasion on both sides is working overtime, too.

The national super PAC Americans for Prosperity recently hosted three forums statewide, including on in Green Bay.

"So yes we pay people to come and talk," Wisconsin state director Luke Hilgemann said. "And we are going to continue to pay people to come and talk because it's that important that people wake up to the problems we face as a country and a nation."

The Brown County Democrats recently brought in a Milwaukee author and president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, where vouchers have been in place since 1990.

"Why does it seem radical and extremist to defend public education?" Barbara Miner asked, an author and columnist. "I mean public schools are part of our constitution."

For years WEAC, the state teacher's union, rivaled or even out-spent pro-voucher groups.

But since Act 10, WEAC's spending has quickly diminished by hundreds-of-thousands-of dollars, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign finds.

This latest push, though, could create a campaign-like atmosphere of its own, dishing out millions more to target every lawmaker and voter in the coming months.

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