Large, out-of-state donors fuel North Carolina’s school “choice” movement

By: - May 21, 2013 6:00 am


More than $90,000 funneled to state legislative campaigns in 2012

In March of 2012, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis and ten other state lawmakers flew to Florida on the dime of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC), an organization known for endorsing conservative education reform initiatives, including school vouchers.

In the year that has followed, North Carolina has absorbed a flood of more than $90,000 in campaign contributions to lawmakers friendly to the school choice movement.

The stated intent of last year’s trip was to educate North Carolina lawmakers about Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, which encourages companies to donate scholarship money for low-income children to attend private schools by providing matching state tax dollars. Critics of the Florida program say it’s a thinly-disguised voucher scheme that diverts funds from the public school system to send kids to private institutions that are not held to the same high standards applied to public schools.

The Florida trip, which cost $8,300, was clearly billed as “educational,” rather than “influential,” by PEFNC in an effort to ensure that the trip did not violate NC lobbying laws.

Since the Florida gathering, lawmakers in the North Carolina legislature have introduced more than 20 bills related to school choice.  Rep. Marcus Brandon, one of the eleven lawmakers who went to Florida, argues that “it is unconstitutional not to give students a choice” when it comes to their education. He has introduced six bills related to school choice this session, including two bills that would bring vouchers to the state.

Brandon was also one of several lawmakers who, in 2012, received campaign donations from PEFNC’s PAC as well as individual PEFNC funders.

Though not indicative of any apparent unlawful activity or purpose, the story of where this money originated and how it flowed shines a revealing light on a movement that bills itself as a grassroots effort driven by the demands of average families.

American Federation for Children

Earlier this month, a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a copy of the American Federation for Children’s (AFC) “2012 Election Impact Report.” The report reveals that AFC, a well-known national school choice advocacy organization, funneled more than $90,000 to the 2012 election campaigns of Republican and Democratic North Carolina lawmakers who support school choice, with the help of two local PACs in North Carolina.

So, who is behind the American Federation for Children?

Previously known as Advocates for School Choice, AFC rebranded itself in March 2010 and also joined with the Alliance for School Choice, which was previously known as the Education Reform Council.

Both of these groups have received considerable amounts of funding from the late John Walton, an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune. Their board members include Dick DeVos, heir to the Amway fortune who has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars of seed money into school choice groups, and his wife Betsy DeVos, who actually runs AFC and is known for her conservative Christian right-wing ideology and for having poured millions into promoting voucher programs across the country.

In February, the AFC contributed $800,000 to pro-voucher ad campaigns for two voucher-friendly candidates running for the legislature in Tennessee. In Wisconsin, the AFC has been very active in reaching out to disability groups to garner their support for vouchers, and has also pitched to them the idea of getting disability vouchers into the state budget.

Other key supporters of AFC include William Oberndorf, managing director of an investment firm who has given millions to the school choice movement and is a board member of Alliance for School Choice, and John Kirtley, a venture capitalist and AFC board member.

Kirtley is also on the board of Step Up for Students, which administers Florida’s tax credit scholarship program that allows low-income students to use state funds to attend private institutions in the state. The program is one of the largest in the country of its kind. In 2011, Step Up for Students’ president, Doug Tuthill, received $165,995 from the organization. Most of the other administrators at Step Up for Students also received well north of $100,000 in compensation.

In response to a call to AFC’s national headquarters to ask why they are interested in funding election campaigns for lawmakers in North Carolina, Matt Frendewey, communications director, said via email, “as the nation’s voice for educational choice, AFC and its coalition partners in states such as North Carolina support candidates on a bipartisan basis who believe in strengthening education by giving parents more educational options for their children.”

Following the money

American Federation for Children’s two local allies are the North Carolina Citizens for Freedom in Education Independent Expenditure PAC (herein referred to as “Citizens PAC”), and PEFNC’s PAC, known as Partners for Educational Freedom PAC.

In 2012, the AFC gave $52,900 to the NC Citizens PAC. According to campaign finance records found on the NC State Board of Elections website, that money was used to fund radio ads, newspaper ads, mailers, and GOTV efforts for the campaigns of Representatives Marcus Brandon, William Brisson, Ed Hanes, Evelyn Terry, and Senators Malcolm Graham and Earline Parmon.

The other local ally, Partners for Educational Freedom PAC, raised $36,700 in 2012 and funneled that money to the following campaigns: Rep. Bryan Holloway, Rep. Bert Jones, Rep. Elmer Floyd, Rep. Mike Stone, Rep. Tim Moffitt, Rep. Ed Hanes, Rep. Evelyn Terry, Rep. Marcus Brandon, Rep. Rob Bryan, Rep. Ruth Samuelson, Rep. Tim Moore, Rep. Paul Stam, Rep. Hugh Blackwell, Rep. John Szoka, Rep. Julia Howard, Rep. William Brisson, Rep. Thom Tillis, Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, Sen. Phil Berger, Sen. Bill Rabon, Sen. Bob Rucho, Sen. Malcolm Graham, Sen. Dan Soucek, and Governor Pat McCrory.

The PEFNC PAC raised the $36,700 from individual donors known for their nationwide efforts to support school voucher programs. Those donors include Dick DeVos, John Kirtley, and William Oberndorf, among others from outside of North Carolina.

Combined, the AFC, NC Citizens PAC and PEFNC PAC funds adds up to the $90,000 figure that American Federation for Children touts in its 2012 Election Impact Report.

But that’s not all of the money coming from the school choice movement.

Some candidates received money from both of the two local PACs as well as additional funds from the individual donors who already contributed to PEFNC PAC.

For example, not only did Rep. Brandon receive $3,000 from the PEFNC PAC and approximately $6,776 for radio spots and mailers from the AFC’s PAC, he also received individual contributions from John Kirtley, Dick DeVos, William Oberndorf and other investors living far away from North Carolina who already donated to PEFNC PAC. Contributions to Brandon from these pro-voucher investors totaled more than $10,000.

This means that the school choice movement’s dollars comprised just shy of 25 percent of all of Brandon’s 2012 campaign contributions.

Bob Hall, Executive Director of Democracy NC, explains that it is valuable to know where legislators are getting their campaign contributions from.

“Sometimes we have groups that have the impression that they can’t advance their issue on the merits of their case, but that they need to pay in order to get their issue addressed in the legislature,” said Hall. “This creates a pay-to-play culture that distorts the political process and is damaging to both legislators and the public.”

Brandon isn’t alone in his receipt of contributions from both PACs and the individual donors behind them. Rep. Bryan Holloway also received a significant amount of contributions from the school choice movement in 2012, totaling approximately $12,000. Pat McCrory’s gubernatorial campaign received nearly $39,000.

Clearly, the influx of funds coming from the school choice movement in 2012 far exceeded the $90,000 delivered by PACs.

During the 2010 election cycle, it appears that the American Federation for Children did not directly contribute to any candidates’ campaigns, nor did they contribute to any local PACs.

In 2012, North Carolina elected a Republican majority in both legislative chambers and a Republican Governor for the first time in more than 50 years.

Pay to play to….win?

The 2012 legislative session has seen at least 20 bills introduced that are related to school choice and vouchers. Some of the most notable include:

  • HB 944, Opportunity Scholarship Act, known as the “voucher bill,” is cosponsored by Reps. Paul Stam and Marcus Brandon. The legislation would siphon $90 million dollars from public schools to private institutions over the next two years by giving $4,200 (max) scholarships to students wishing to attend private schools. The bill is set to be heard in the House Education Committee for the first time tomorrow, May 21.
  • Rep. Marcus Brandon has also introduced HB 269, Children w/ Disabilities Scholarship Grants, which has already passed the House. The legislation would offer grants of up to $6,000 per year to parents with special needs children to enroll them in private school and receive daily special education services. Critics of the bill say the vouchers would not be enough to cover private school tuition and thus not serve the truly needy.
  • Sen. Jerry Tillman introduced SB 337, NC Public Charter School Board, which would create a new charter school oversight board independent of the State Board of Education and set policy for charter schools. The bill also exempts charter schools from any requirement that teachers be certified and does not require charter schools to provide transportation or meals to students, unlike their public school counterparts. SB 337 has passed the Senate.
  • Dueling education reform bills, SB 361 introduced by Sen. Phil Berger and HB 719, introduced by Rep. Rick Glazier, offer sweeping changes to how teachers are treated and schools are assessed. The Senate bill does away with teacher tenure and puts forth specifications for the A-F school grading system, which many say is a thinly veiled set up for charter schools to come into school districts and attract students who are at “failing schools.” The House bill has provisions that are friendlier to teacher tenure and incorporate a school’s growth over time into its grade.

These education reform bills come at a time when school privatization efforts are sweeping the nation. Many other states have introduced or passed similar bills aimed at providing students and families a choice when public education is failing to serve their needs.

At the same time, state-level investment in public education has plummeted across the country as many states face contracted budgets. Budget cuts have left many schools in North Carolina scrambling to provide the resources students and teachers need to be successful in the classroom.

Chicken or the Egg?

While it appears that none of the lawmakers or those who contributed to their campaigns has violated any campaign finance laws, the question remains: how does the average voter discern whether or not their elected representative is championing an issue she truly cares about, or if the money associated with that issue – and her prospects for reelection – is what is driving her agenda?

This story has been updated to reflect that Doug Tuthill, not John Kirtley, received $165,995  in compensation from Step Up for Students. We regret the error.

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Lindsay Wagner

Lindsay Wagner, former Education Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch. Wagner now works as a Senior Writer and Researcher at the NC Public School Forum. She has also worked for the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C., as a writer and researcher focusing on higher education issues and for the National Education Association, the U.S. Department of State's Fulbright program and the Brookings Institution and an Education Specialist at the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. [email protected]