September 2010 Church & State | Featured

In March, a Michigan multi-millionaire named Betsy DeVos announced the formation of a new national group to fight for voucher subsidies for religious schools and other forms of “school choice.”

“Political gamesmanship and special interests should never stand in the way of providing children with access to great schools,” DeVos fulminated in a press release announcing the creation of the American Federation for Children. “We know that it takes smart public policy – and political backbone – to bring about the types of school choice programs that provide families with better educational opportunities. That is why we have created the American Federation for Children.”

But on closer inspection, it turned out that this Washington, D.C.-based organization wasn’t so new after all. As the press release mentioned, the American Federation for Children was just a rebranding effort for a group previously known as Advocates for School Choice.

Why the name change? DeVos, a fundamentalist Christian and far-right political activist, probably wanted to jump-start the pro-voucher drive with at least the appearance of something new. At the same time, the revised moniker was a slap at the American Federation of Teachers, a teachers’ union much loathed by DeVos and her allies.

The real news in the release was the growing prominence of DeVos as a linchpin in the voucher movement. Although hardly a household name, if Betsy DeVos has her way, every American could feel her reach: DeVos’ goal is nothing short of a radical re-creation of education in the United States, with tax-supported religious and other private schools replacing the traditional public school system.

DeVos rarely states it that bluntly. Instead, she crouches behind the euphemism of “school choice” and pretends to be a kindly advocate for downtrodden youngsters trapped in public schools described as “failing.” 

Driven by a relentless faith in ultra-conservative religion and the privatization of public services, DeVos and her husband, Dick, who is best known as the former president of Amway, are pouring millions from their personal fortune into a nationwide voucher push.

They’ll be bringing plenty of anti-public school allies along for the ride – chief among them the Walton Family Foundation, an entity operated by the heirs of Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart.

Publicly available documents tell an interesting story of interlocking organizations linked by an ambitious political agenda aimed right at the heart of public education. It’s an alarming tale in which Betsy DeVos poses as a benign benefactor of poor children – all while spearheading a billion-dollar store chain’s crusade to crush unions and privatize a public school system that serves 90 percent of American youngsters.

A key component of the plot is DeVos’ American Federation for Children, a group that shares a street address with another of her organizations, the Alliance for School Choice (ASC). The ASC has since 2007 spent nearly $13.5 million on its pro-voucher crusade – and much of that money came from DeVos.

The documents show that in 2008, the most recent year for which figures are available, the Alliance for School Choice poured millions into state-based voucher organizations and front groups claiming to represent black and Hispanic parents. The goal is familiar: pressure legislators by convincing them support for vouchers is growing.

There’s a political component as well. DeVos hopes to stack state legislatures with voucher-friendly lawmakers. She has announced that yet another entity, the American Federation for Children Action Fund “is gearing up to make an impact in statewide legislative races across the country.”

The DeVoses are no strangers to the voucher movement – and the savvy far-right power couple has learned from their mistakes. In 2000, they engineered placement of a voucher referendum on the Michigan ballot, a tactical misstep that led to a stinging defeat.

Dick DeVos, lined up a bevy of ultra-conservative political allies to shovel $12 million into the effort, outspending anti-voucher forces 2-1. They produced slick TV ads that disingenuously portrayed the voucher plan as a way to shore up troubled public schools and save taxpayers’ money.

But Michigan voters were not impressed. On Election Day, they rejected the proposal by a vote of 69-31 percent.

Six years later, Dick DeVos ran for governor of Michigan. Although some early polls showed incumbent Jennifer Granholm vulnerable due to the state’s poor economic climate, DeVos was soundly beaten, 56 percent to 42 percent.

Since then, the DeVoses have focused their voucher crusade on the creation of a coast-to-coast network disguised as a pro-child crusade to liberate youngsters from troubled public schools.

Pro-voucher activism allows Betsy DeVos, former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, to play a right-wing trifecta. She can attack three targets at once: church-state separation, the public education system and the teachers’ unions.

The “re-creation” of AFC was the opening shot. And if its Web site is any indication, DeVos intends to play hardball. The site,, has quickly become a polished delivery mechanism for pro-voucher propaganda.

Over the summer, for example, the AFC site touted a study of a controversial five-year school voucher experiment in Washington, D.C. A final report of the federally funded program showed the target population of voucher students performing no better academically than their public school counterparts.

This would seem to be a failure for vouchers, but the AFC Web site focused instead on a separate finding from the study indicating that voucher students had a slightly higher high-school graduation rate. The group never bothered to point out that this portion of the study relied on self reporting – or that the private schools in the program might simply have been pushing students through.

This type of spin, backed by DeVos, the Walton Foundation and their mega-bucks bank accounts, could mark a turning point for voucher advocacy. For years, the drive for private school subsidies was led chiefly by lobbyists hired by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Eager to prop up a shrinking parochial school system, church representatives trolled the halls of Congress and the state capitols seeking various forms of tax support.

Over the years, these Catholic lobbyists have occasionally been joined by various fundamentalist Christians, Orthodox Jews and others who sponsor private religious education. And, in the 1980s, anti-government libertarians jumped into the fray in a big way.

While the Catholic bishops could always be counted on to provide armies of parochial school children to pack congressional hearings and state legislative chambers or show up for sign-waving demonstrations, money was sometimes lacking. (The church had other legislative priorities as well, such as curbing legal abortion.) With DeVos and Co., the bishops will have a strong new ally capable of bringing a lot of cash and political savvy to the drive.

For voucher advocates, the timing is right. It comes just as broad support for wide-ranging voucher plans has stalled a bit. Milwaukee and Cleveland have voucher programs – Cleveland’s was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2005 – and several states have complicated tuition tax- credit schemes that function as de facto vouchers, but no state has an open, statewide voucher plan. (See “Backdoor Vouchers Slip Into Supreme Court,” September 2010 Church & State.)

Other educational approaches, such as charter schools, have proved more popular. And Americans don’t seem to be clamoring for radical changes in education.

That doesn’t mean voucher advocates are giving up. They’ve simply shifted strategies and are gnawing at the edges of the public school system. For example, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and Utah now have voucher programs aimed at “special needs” students.

In addition, nine states – Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota and Pennsylvania – have tuition tax-credit/deduction programs. In some states, like Arizona, the tax credit is worth 100 percent. Critics have dubbed these plans “neo-vouchers.”

Voucher boosters have learned from their successes. They are increasingly targeting state legislatures, where they promote voucher schemes that supposedly benefit select student populations, such as “at-risk” students or young people with learning disabilities. It’s a way to get a foothold for the concept.

What drives people like the DeVoses?

Some people support vouchers because they want public support for the religious schools they favor. Others simply don’t like public education and extol private options. The DeVoses represent a merger of these ideas: They’re strict fundamentalist Christians and also free-market zealots. The two also share a loathing for unions, and they are no fans of church-state separation.

Growing up in the strict Calvinist Christian Reformed Church, Betsy DeVos’ antipathy toward public education may run in her blood. She comes from a politically active, socially conservative family. Her parents are Elsa Prince Broekhuizen and the late Edgar Prince, a Michigan couple that has funded the Religious Right for years.

The Princes have provided huge sums to both Focus on the Family and its quasi-affiliate, the Family Research Council (FRC). Even today, the FRC maintains a fulfillment center in Grand Rapids, where the Princes and the DeVoses are based. (Betsy DeVos’ brother, Erik, is notorious in his own right: He founded the controversial international security company Blackwater.)

In Michigan, the DeVoses have sought to use their home state as a laboratory for their ideas. In Lansing, Michigan’s capital, they run an outfit called the Foundation for Traditional Values.

Although it sounds like a run-of-the-mill Religious Right group, the Foundation for Traditional Values does just one thing: sponsor an annual “Student Statesmanship Institute” designed to groom a new generation of Religious Right leaders in the political world.

“The dynamic teaching combined with real-world simulations equips teenagers to distinguish between secular and Biblical approaches to life and motivates them to shine for Christ in their generation without compromising their values,” boasts the Institute’s Web site.

According to the Institute, America was founded on “Christian thought” but has drifted from those ideals. The group aims to “restore” these values by immersing young people in week-long programs that focus on things like mock legislatures and media training.

Can the DeVoses’ education agenda make it on the national stage? In the nation’s capital, they won’t have to go it alone. In fact, a pro-voucher infrastructure already exists, built in part with money provided by the Wal-ton Family Foundation. This means the DeVos pro-voucher effort is likely to win some powerful allies.

Within sight of the U.S. Capitol sits the Heritage Foundation, a sprawling right-wing enterprise so large its building takes up half of a city block. With an annual budget toping $70 million, the relentlessly pro-voucher Heritage Foundation enjoys significant influence with top GOP leaders.

The Heritage Foundation also has ties to the Religious Right. It was founded (in part with DeVos money) by the late Paul Weyrich, one of the early gurus of the Religious Right, and has cosponsored the Family Research Council’s “Values Voter Summit” in Washington. Although most of the Summit focuses on issues like abortion restrictions, church politicking and opposition to gay rights, in recent years there have been more sessions on economic issues, health care and government spending. 

Another key factor is the retailing behemoth Wal-Mart. The nationwide store chain is known for its hatred of unions, which makes it a natural ally for pro-voucher groups, many of which have spent years demonizing teachers’ unions.

The family of Sam Walton, the late founder of the chain, runs the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation in Bentonville, Ark. In 2007-08, the foundation poured $232 million into efforts to promote school choice in the states, including vouchers, reported The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

The Walton Foundation’s involvement makes it clear that the leading voucher groups are anything but grassroots movements. It’s likely that several of the organizations would have collapsed by now were it not for steady infusions of Walton funds.

Walton Foundation money subsidized DeVos’ Alliance for School Choice with a hefty $2,231,880 grant in 2008. The Center for Education Reform, a small pro-voucher group based in Bethesda, Md., got a third of its budget from Walton money, and the Institute for Justice got $400,000.

Other groups involved in the new voucher push include the libertarian Cato Institute, the Council for American Private Education, the Heartland Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council. (See “Voucher Varlets,” September Church & State.)

Along with shelling out big bucks, right-wing, hyper-capitalistic groups have also worked for years to woo members of minority communities, with mixed success.

Exit polls taken during state voucher referenda show that African Americans, Hispanics and Asians opposed voucher proposals at about the same rate as whites. In some cases, such as the 2000 Michigan vote, minority opposition has been higher.

Nevertheless, various pro-voucher minority front groups exist. One of the largest is the Black Alliance for Educational Options, with a budget of about $3.8 million annually. Although it maintains an office in Washington, the group was formed in 1999 by staffers at the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, a Catholic school in Milwaukee. It relies on Walton Foundation money to survive. In 2008, the BAEO received $2,050,000 from the Arkansas foundation.

A separate organization, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, seeks to mobilize the Latino community. Based in Lake Worth, Fla., the group has a budget of just over $1 million. $200,000 of it came from the Walton Foundation.

Although their budgets are not huge, front groups that claim to represent minorities play a key role in the “school choice” drive by working to create the false impression that minority parents are clamoring for vouchers.

In New Jersey, where vouchers are being hotly debated, a group called Excellent Education for Everyone is aggressively courting black and Hispanic communities. The group recently drafted Fantasia, a singer who won the popular “American Idol” singing competition in 2004, and Terrence J, host of a music video countdown show on Black Entertainment Television, to appear on bus ads on behalf of vouchers.

Excellent Education for Everyone’s Web site notes, “Many other celebrities of diverse backgrounds have joined the cause. They include Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Universal recording artist and Newark native Kat Deluna, and rapper and producer Erick Sermon.”

In addition, the group has drafted the Rev. Reginald Jackson, executive director of the New Jersey Ministers’ Council, and Carlos Valentin, executive director of ASPIRA of New Jersey, an organization for Latino youth.

But once again, it’s Walton money, not cash from minorities, that props up the group. Excellent Education for Everyone has received $500,000 from the Arkansas foundation – nearly a third of its $1.6 million budget.

And despite the barrage of propaganda, one stark fact remains: There is no evidence that voucher plans boost the academic performance of minority students, special-needs students or any others, for that matter.

In her recent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, longtime education researcher Diane Ravitch noted that in Milwaukee, where a voucher program has been operating for two decades, results have been disappointing.

“In sum,” Ravitch wrote, “twenty years after the initiation of vouchers in Milwaukee and a decade after the program’s expansion to include religious schools, there was no evidence of dramatic improvement for the neediest students or the public schools they left behind.”

Ravitch was an advocate of “school choice” for many years. Her change of heart raised the ire of some conservatives. She resigned from the boards of two conservative groups and now says many of the ideas she once supported turned out to be fads.

“School reform today is like a freight train, and I’m out on the tracks saying, ‘You’re going the wrong way!’” Ravitch told The New York Times in March. Instead of vouchers, Ravitch now advocates a strong core curriculum anchored in the liberal arts and sciences and better teacher training to ensure strong classroom instruction.

At its core, the most troubling issue about vouchers is not whether they “work,” but that they are wrong in principle. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has always opposed the concept because it involves compelled financial support for religion.

Americans United has worked against taxpayer funding of religious education since the group’s founding in 1947. Barry W. Lynn, AU executive director, said the organization strongly believes that no American should be compelled to pay for religious instruction.

“Religious schools have no right to demand that everyone pay taxes to help them spread their theology,” Lynn said. “Those efforts should be supported with voluntary contributions.

“Vouchers and tuition tax credits,” Lynn concluded, “force all Americans to pay for religion, whether they believe in that faith or not. That’s fundamentally wrong, and Americans United will oppose these reckless proposals in every state where they appear.”