“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.”