Money talks in the Indiana school voucher debate

“Follow the money,” Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat, famously told the young reporters in All the President’s Men. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette took that advice to heart for an editorial on the push for school vouchers in the Indiana legislature, and here’s what it found.

The “loudest voice” supporting publicly funded vouchers for students attending private schools is the Indianapolis-based Foundation for Educational Choice, the J-G says. The chairman of the foundation’s board is Utah businessman Patrick Byrne, CEO of online retailer Overstock.com., who has given $125,000 since 2007 to Gov. Mitch Daniels’ political campaigns and another $25,000 to Aiming Higher, Daniels’ political action committee.

Byrne also gave $15,000 to the campaign fund of Superintendent for Public Instruction Tony Bennett and $200,000 to Hoosiers for Economic Growth, a PAC that spent money last year primarily to produce a Republican majority in the state legislature. Four other trustees of the Foundation for Educational Choice gave campaign money to Daniels and Bennett.

“In the absence of data and public support for school vouchers, the influence of campaign contributions speaks loudly,” the Journal-Gazette argues. “Public education supporters will need to speak even louder in the weeks ahead to protect Indiana schools and students.”

Follow the money a bit further and you see that Hoosiers for Economic Growth gave money in 2010 to Rep. Robert Behning, chairman of House Education Committee, and Sen. Dennis Kruse, chairman of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee (even though Kruse was unopposed and Behning may as well have been in his heavily Republican district). They’re the legislators who decide whether voucher bills are considered.

Hoosiers for Economic Growth appears to have spent $400,000 on Indiana elections last year. Several Republicans in contested races got $10,000 or more, serious cash in an Indiana legislative race. The group gave a remarkable $72,585 to Rhonda Rhoads, a Harrison County Republican who knocked off long-time Democratic Rep. Paul Robertson, a high-school teacher and stalwart friend of the Indiana State Teachers Association.

Where did Hoosiers for Economic Growth get its money? Three quarters came from three sources: Byrne; the PAC of the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children (which listed the Terre Haute law office of Republican national big-wig James Bopp as the address for its contribution but is directed by folks in Michigan, California and Florida); and right-wing philanthropists Sean and Ana Fieler of Princeton, N.J.

In other words, not from Hoosiers or from people whose primary agenda is economic growth.

Politicians always say that campaign contributions don’t influence them – that donors logically give money to candidates who already share their philosophy of politics and governing.

But school vouchers weren’t on the radar screen during recent Indiana elections. Daniels and Bennett didn’t campaign for vouchers in 2008. Neither did Republican legislative candidates in 2010. The Indiana House GOP platform vaguely said the state should “continue progress on education dollars following the child” but didn’t mention the V word. There’s been no public clamor for vouchers – a poll by a pro-voucher group found that two-thirds of Hoosier voters weren’t familiar with the concept. And no one has made a persuasive argument that they will improve schools.

Yet Indiana Republicans from Daniels to Bennett to the House and Senate majority have sprung them on the public as a key part of their education agenda. It brings to mind an old saying in Indiana politics: “You dance with who brung you.”

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9 thoughts on “Money talks in the Indiana school voucher debate

  1. Not that any of the money /contributions surprised me. Thanks for keeping us informed, Steve. I hope you don’t mind I continue to share your blog on Facebook and hope the informationt generates some concern.

  2. State Public School System Ranked Best in U.S. by 2 Reports

    By Nelson Hernandez
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 8, 2009

    A six-year Maryland effort to spend billions of dollars more on public education has led to major performance gains that have helped make the state’s schools the best in the country, according to a pair of independent reports released yesterday.

    A three-year study of the Bridge to Excellence Act came as Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes the trade newspaper Education Week, announced the results of its annual survey of state school systems. In the latter report, Maryland was ranked first among the 50 states and the District. Last year, the state ranked third.

    “I’m elated,” Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said at an Annapolis High School event to promote the two reports. “We now have the No. 1, the best public school system in the United States of America, and we need to do our best to defend that.”

    The Education Week study evaluated school systems on several criteria, including accountability standards, college readiness of high school graduates, spending and equity. Virginia ranked fourth and the District last.

    Maryland student performance on standardized tests, another factor in the Education Week report, has steadily improved since passage of the law. Annual state education spending is now $4.6 billion a year, up 80 percent from the 2002 level, according to the report. In addition, local governments have raised education spending 34 percent in that time.

    The report by MGT of America found that “proficiency levels statewide have improved dramatically for all students,” particularly in elementary schools. Elementary students cut in half the gap between where they were in 2004 and the goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading, the report said.

    The MGT report found that for every additional $1,000 spent per elementary student, proficiency rates rose 4 percent. They rose 8 percent on the same measure for middle school students.

    “Additional money, with strong accountability, can make a difference,” Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools, said in response to the two reports.

    The reports provide ammunition for lawmakers and education leaders who are fighting to hold the line on school funding. With the state facing a $1.9 billion revenue shortfall next year, government leaders are under heavy pressure to slash spending.

    Some cuts are likely to come from education, which represents more than a third of the state’s annual budget. Last month, O’Malley’s budget secretary recommended cutting almost $38 million from an initiative that sends additional education aid to Montgomery, Prince George’s and other counties. Other proposals include making local jurisdictions pay for teachers’ pensions.

    O’Malley acknowledged that he was examining those cuts as possibilities — he called the pensions “a huge burden that we labor under” — but said the studies showed that money spent wasn’t wasted.

    “I think what this report means is that we, the people of the state of Maryland, have made a huge investment in education, and that investment is paying off,” O’Malley said. Echoing the governor, banners draped in the Annapolis High auditorium proclaimed: “Maryland Public Schools — A Great Investment!”

    Much of the past six years’ spending increases went toward hiring and paying new, highly qualified teachers. School systems spent $1.8 billion on raises and benefits for teachers, the MGT report said, and hired staff for more than 10,900 new positions, with 8,300 of those teaching positions.

    (An article to contrast with Indiana reforms.)

  3. Why hasn’t this information about Daniel’s corrupt relationship with charter school profiteers reached a larger audience??

    My son is a fourth grade teacher in Austin, TX. I am on the warpath!

  4. Pingback: Politics prevail as Indiana House passes school voucher bill « School Matters

  5. Pingback: Indiana General Assembly to public schools: Drop dead « School Matters

  6. Pingback: Indiana schools chief Bennett has big head start in election fund-raising « School Matters

  7. Pingback: Tax credits for private-school scholarship donations: Yes, Indiana has them « School Matters

  8. Pingback: Bloomberg, voucher advocates putting up money for Bennett « School Matters

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