September 2010 Church & State | Featured

Who’s behind the campaign for school vouchers? One thing is clear: It’s not average Americans. Several national organizations promote voucher aid to religious and other private schools, but they rely for money on a handful of right-wing funders, led by the Walton Family Foundation.Here is a list of the major players. All budget figures are taken from publicly available documents and are from fiscal year 2008-2009 or calendar year 2008.

Walton Family FoundationHeadquarters: Bentonville, Ark.Budget: $421,806,176Description: The undisputed sugar daddy in the world of voucher groups is the Walton Family Foundation. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a voucher movement without the Walton clan. Operated by the heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, the foundation dished out $175,490,114 in 2008. While much of the money went to community groups, universities and charitable organizations, a huge chunk went to pro-voucher organizations as well. The Alliance for School Choice, for example, got $2,231,880.

Heritage FoundationHeadquarters: Washington, D.C.Budget: $70,877,006Description: Founded by Religious Right activist Paul Weyrich in 1973, the Heritage Foundation is a huge right-wing think tank on Capitol Hill. Although the group addresses many topics, advocacy of school vouchers has always been one of its core issues.

Cato InstituteHeadquarters: Washington, D.C.Budget: $20,145,060Description: The Cato Institute was founded in 1977 to advocate for a libertarian political philosophy, mainly small government, low taxes and minimal regulation. Generally opposed to government-funded services, the group assails public education and advocates for vouchers.

Institute for JusticeHeadquarters: Arlington, Va.Budget: $10,163,198Description: This libertarian-oriented legal group was formed in 1991 to advocate in court for small government and privatization of public services. It works on several issues but has always had a strong interest in vouchers and has played a role in every major lawsuit related to vouchers.

Alliance for School Choice/American Federation for ChildrenHeadquarters: Washington, D.C.Budget: $7,706,038Description: These two organizations are the leading voice for vouchers in the nation’s capital. The Alliance was founded in 2004 in Phoenix. Its first president was Clint Bolick, who has also worked for the Institute for Justice. In 2007, Charles R. Hokanson, a former U.S. Education Department official, became president of the Alliance, which moved to Washington. Earlier this year, Betsy DeVos formed the American Federation for Children, which appears to be subsuming the Advocates for School Choice. The group relies heavily on funding from the Walton Family Foundation.

Black Alliance for Educational OptionsHeadquarters: Washington, D.C.Budget: $3,838,229Description: Formed by Howard Fuller at Marquette University, a Roman Catholic institution, the BAEO is a front group that purports to represent African Americans who are pro-voucher. Far from being grassroots-driven, the organization receives much of its funding from right-wing foundations, including the Walton Family Foundation, the John Olin Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. In 2008, the BAEO received more than half of its funding, $2,050,000, from the Walton Family Foundation.

American Legislative Exchange CouncilHeadquarters: Washington, D.C.Budget: $6,975,222Description: The American Legislative Exchange Council is a right-wing organization that exists to promote far-right laws in state legislatures, mainly by providing model legislation to sympathetic lawmakers. Although ALEC works on a variety of issues, school vouchers have always been a part of its program.

Center for Education ReformHeadquarters: Bethesda, Md.Budget: $1,459,836Description: Founded by longtime voucher advocate Jeanne Allen, the Center for Education Reform says it exists to promote a variety of educational options. In reality, the group mainly promotes vouchers. About a third of its budget comes from the Walton Foundation.

Foundation for Educational ChoiceHeadquarters: IndianapolisBudget: $3,802,160Description: This foundation is sponsored by an organization founded by Milton Friedman, the late economist who came to prominence by advocating laissez-faire economic policies in the 1970s. Founded in 1996, it undertakes research and provides grants to pro-voucher groups.

Heartland InstituteHeadquarters: ChicagoBudget: $7,782,959Description: The Heartland Institute, founded in 1984, promotes “free market” concepts for a number of issues. Among them are vouchers and school choice. The group says it provides research and analysis on these issues and emphasizes getting its materials into the hands of state and federal legislators. Heartland claims that 85 percent of state lawmakers have read at least one of its publications.