Sondy Pope-Roberts and Howard Marklein rarely talk to each other.
That's not surprising, given the political climate. She's a Democratic member of the state Assembly from Middleton; he's a Republican member from Spring Green. But there's something she's sort of dying to know, about his relationship with supporters of school choice.
"How much money did he get from them?" asks Pope-Roberts. "And how does he go back to Spring Green and explain his vote when schools there are struggling to maintain programs and staff?"
A graduate of River Valley High School in Spring Green, Pope-Roberts is perplexed by Marklein's support for the state's parental choice voucher program, which directs taxpayer funds to private schools, most of them religiously affiliated. Marklein also introduced measures sought by and drafted with input from School Choice Wisconsin, a lobbying group. Most of these were folded into the 2011-13 budget bill and passed into law.
"What's in this for Howard Marklein?" asks Pope-Roberts. "If it isn't for the campaign funds, why is he doing this?"
Marklein, who insists he has other reasons for supporting school choice, was elected to an open Assembly seat last fall, getting 52 percent of the vote over Democrat John Simonson. According to an analysis by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign contributions, Marklein received $3,274 from pro-voucher individuals and political action committees.
That's not an overwhelming amount of money in a race where Marklein spent almost $98,000. But it doesn't end there. The American Federation for Children, a pro-school-choice group, sent district voters three anti-Simonson mailings, none of which mentioned the issue of school choice.
The group has not disclosed how much it spent on this and other races, but the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign has estimated the cost of a "quality" state Assembly mailing at $10,000 a pop.
"I cannot control what a third party does," shrugs Marklein, adding that he wasn't even aware of the mailings until several months after the election. "It certainly didn't influence any of my decision-making. I sleep well at night."
Marklein is just one of dozens of Wisconsin political players on the receiving end of millions of dollars poured into state campaigns and the legislative process from individuals and interest groups committed to promoting alternatives to public schools.
In just the past several months these efforts have produced major gains, including expanding school choice in Milwaukee and extending it to Racine. A vast and interconnected array of choice proponents, many from out of state, are changing the face of education in Wisconsin.
"The new 800-pound gorilla -- actually it's more of a 1,200-pound gorilla -- is the tax-funded-voucher groups," says state Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison. "They've become the most powerful lobbying entity in the state."
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"School choice" is a broad term that refers to a wide range of alternatives, including themed charter schools that are entirely under the control of their home school districts. Forty states and the District of Columbia have those in place, according to the American Federation for Children, a national school choice advocacy group.
But it is the voucher programs, in which public funds are used to send children to private schools, that are the focus of much of the energy around the choice movement. Seven states and the District of Columbia have those, and Milwaukee's voucher program is the first and largest of its kind in the country. That makes Wisconsin a key national battleground.
"Wisconsin has a high level of value to the movement as a whole," says Robert Enlow, president of the Indianapolis-based Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, a nonprofit group that advocates for school choice. The state, he says, is notable for "the high level of scholarship amounts that families can get."
Milwaukee's voucher program had 20,300 full-time equivalent voucher students at 102 private schools in 2010-11, compared to about 80,000 students at Milwaukee's public K-12 schools. The total cost, at $6,442 per voucher student, was $130.8 million, of which about $90 million came from the state and the rest from the Milwaukee Public Schools.
Critics see the school choice program as part of a larger strategy -- driven into high gear in Wisconsin by the fall election of Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans -- to eviscerate, for ideological and religious reasons, public schools and the unions that represent teachers.
"This is a national movement and they are trying to come into Wisconsin now that Republicans are in control to take this opportunity to expand school choice," says Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, a professional association for state school superintendents.. "I think it is a serious attack on public education in Wisconsin and a watering down of one of the best public school systems in the nation."
Assisting this movement are people like Alice Walton, the multi-billionaire heiress to father Sam Walton's Walmart empire.
Walton, a horse lover and arts patron who lives in Millsap, Texas, was the largest individual contributor to successful state legislative candidates in the 2009-2010 election cycle that brought Republicans to power in Wisconsin, according to data from MapLight, a nonpartisan organization that tracks the relationship between money and politics.
Alice Walton gave a total of $16,100 to these candidates, the data show. Five other members of her family were also among the top 15 individual contributors to last fall's successful state legislative candidates.
Other members of the Walton clan contributing to Wisconsin elections include Alice's brother and sister-in-law Jim and Lynne Walton, sister-in-law Christy Walton, niece Carrie Penner and her husband, Greg Penner.
Collectively, these six individuals have given at least $103,450 to Wisconsin candidates since mid-2008, state records show.
But the Waltons' contribution to the state's choice program goes well beyond campaign contributions. The Walton Family Foundation is a major funder of School Choice Wisconsin, the state's leading voucher advocate, as well as other state and national groups that play a role in school choice efforts in Wisconsin.
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Alice Walton and other members of her family did not respond to multiple interview requests placed through the Walton Family Foundation since early August. But the foundation states in an annual report that "increasing the quantity and quality of school choices available to parents" infuses competitive pressure into the educational system, resulting in improvements to all schools.
The Walton Family Foundation highlights "systemic K-12 education reform" as one of the areas in which it is "making a positive difference." In 2010 it invested $157 million in this cause, including efforts to "shape public policy."
This includes $300,000 to School Choice Wisconsin, $250,000 each to three existing or proposed charter schools in Milwaukee and Madison, and nearly $500,000 to Marquette University's Institute for the Transformation of Learning, headed by school choice advocate Howard Fuller.
The Walton Family Foundation also gave at least $600,000 last year to the University of Arkansas' School Choice Demonstration Project, which is conducting a multi-year assessment of Milwaukee's school choice program.
In March the Arkansas project released a report of Milwaukee's parental choice program that others have criticized as overly rosy. But the report did find that there was no significant difference in the performance of select choice students and similar Milwaukee public school students in the 2009-10 school year. That finding was affirmed in August by Wisconsin's nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau.
And Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction data based on the test scores of all students show that voucher students in Milwaukee's choice program actually performed worse on standardized tests in fall 2010 than students in Milwaukee public schools, especially in mathematics. That was even true among students categorized as "economically disadvantaged."
Across all grades, 43.9 percent of these economically disadvantaged students scored at the proficient or advanced level in mathematics, compared to 34.4 percent for school choice participants. The test scores for reading were also lower for choice participants, but less dramatically so.
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Voucher advocates say they just want to give students an alternative to failing public school systems. "It's all about the kids," insists Marklein. "I will always start my decision-making with the kids. If that offends the teachers unions, so be it."
Pope-Roberts argues that Marklein's advocacy on this issue "does not represent the interest of his district," which does not receive any vouchers. Jamie Benson, superintendent of the River Valley School District, agrees.
"I know of no advantage to our corner of the state to supporting the choice program," Benson says. "It will only drain resources from our schools."
Marklein, an accountant by profession (his firm handles the financial audits for Milwaukee Public Schools), disputes this.
"The reason I support school choice is because it saves Jamie Benson money," says Marklein, also a River Valley High School alum. He cites a Legislative Fiscal Bureau report from May showing the consequences of ending parental choice vouchers, which cost the state less than the average public-school student (about $10,000 per year, according to the state Department of Public Instruction).
According to the report, if 50 percent of Milwaukee choice students were to return to public schools, the additional expense to the state would translate into a $39,489 reduction to the River Valley School District.
The counterargument is that many of the private schools receiving voucher funding once existed without it, at no cost to taxpayers. And the Fiscal Bureau has calculated that the expansion of choice programs in the recent budget adds tens of millions of dollars to state education costs. That's because the expansion of the program will mean tax expenditures for private-school students who now cost the state nothing, even if they do cost less than their public school counterparts on a per-student basis,
Over time, many private choice schools have become dependent on public dollars. According to the state Department of Public Instruction, on average 83 percent of students enrolled in any given choice school were on publicly funded vouchers in 2010-11. And 60 percent of private schools in the choice program had 90 percent or more of their students receiving vouchers.
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The influx of school choice money into Wisconsin is most easily tracked in direct contributions to political candidates. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign's analysis found that individuals and political action committees associated with school choice gave $125,220 in campaign contributions to Walker and another $181,627 to current legislators and committees, most of them Republicans, in the 2009-10 election cycle.
Foes of school choice, meanwhile, gave $25,650 to Walker's Democratic rival, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, and $217,734 in donations to current legislators, most of them Democrats, according to the group.
Many of the direct contributions to Wisconsin candidates from school choice proponents come through a conduit called the Fund for Parent Choice. Conduits bundle money from individual donors to present to candidates collectively.
The fund is administered by the Alliance for Choices in Education, an advocacy organization affiliated with School Choice Wisconsin, founded by Susan Mitchell of Whitefish Bay. She and her husband, George, are major contributors to the fund.
It is the Fund for Parent Choice through which the Waltons make their contributions to state political campaigns. From August 2008 to mid-August of this year, the fund funneled $354,400 in direct contributions to Wisconsin political campaigns, of which $312,000 was from out-of-state. More than 90 percent of these contributions have gone to Republican candidates. The largest beneficiary: Walker, at $58,575.
State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, co-chair of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee and a strong backer of school choice, suggests that all of this spending is a waste.
"I believe in school choice because I believe in school choice," Vos says. "It's not because of who I know or who talks to me."
Vos sees voucher programs as part of the solution to troubled public schools. "It is not a panacea, not a silver bullet, it is not an answer for every single situation. In certain situations, however, I believe that it's an alternative that should definitely be utilized to try and make the lives of these kids in bad situations better."
In recent years, Vos has received $500 checks from both Alice and Christy Walton. Does he know these people personally?
"I wish I did," he says with a laugh.
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But direct contributions to candidates account for only about an eighth of all the political spending driven by the school choice debate. Both sides spent much more on independent electioneering activities, including ads and mailings, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign noted. In all, it estimated total spending in the 2009-2010 election cycle at more than $3 million for school choice proponents and $1 million for opponents.
A key player in this behind-the-scenes funding is the American Federation for Children, headed by Betsy and Dick DeVos, the Michigan-based billionaire heirs to the Amway fortune.
According to the Democracy Campaign, in the fall 2010 legislative races the federation spent an estimated $820,000 on independent expenditures and "phony issue ad activity" - ads that purport to raise issues but are meant to influence elections. These expenditures are not publicly disclosed.
The Democracy Campaign has calculated that the federation made television ad buys totaling $500,000 in three media markets in advance of this summer's state Senate recall elections, all on behalf of Republican incumbents. In those elections, Republicans lost two Senate seats but succeeded in maintaining a one-seat majority.
The combined gravity of the American Federation for Children and affiliated groups has pulled many prominent Wisconsin Republicans into their orbit.
Walker, a prominent supporter of school choice, in May spoke before the annual meeting of the federation in Washington, D.C. "It's not only good for our children," he was quoted as saying. "I think when you make a commitment to true education reform it's also good for your state's economy."
Serving as a senior advisor to the Alliance for School Choice, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that is closely affiliated with the federation, is Scott Jensen, a former Republican Wisconsin Assembly speaker. Jensen's 2006 conviction on three felony counts of misconduct in office was overturned on appeal; late last year, the more serious charges were dropped when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor ethics violation.
Jensen is also registered as one of the three contract lobbyists for the federation, which reported spending $56,659 on lobbying Wisconsin state government in the first six months of 2011. This included $6,680 to Jensen for 32 hours of lobby work, which comes to more than $200 an hour.
The bulk of the federation's lobby effort in Wisconsin is handled by its government affairs associate, Brian Pleva, formerly an aide for Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon. Former Fitzgerald chief of staff Jim Bender left to become a lobbyist for School Choice Wisconsin.
That these groups managed to hire two top aides who would have been key players in a GOP-controlled Legislature is seen as a sign of the movement's tremendous clout. Rep. Pocan says the "natural progression" would have been for Pleva and Bender to take their place at the pinnacle of power. Instead, "they left state government to work for the voucher groups."
Another lobbyist on the payroll of School Choice Wisconsin is former Republican Assembly Speaker John Gard. This spring the group sent Gard to Green Bay to talk up expansion efforts there.
"They've got people in place who understand how to operate the levers of government and who are probably doing it pretty skillfully," says Dan Rossmiller, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, which opposes school vouchers.
Bender, now the president of School Choice Wisconsin, says the various pro-school-choice groups have different focuses and operate mostly independently of each other. And he credits the movement's recent successes not to its elite lobbying force but to "a very supportive governor and a strong Legislature to back up his initiatives."
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The biennial budget passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Walker advances the school choice agenda in several ways.
It eliminates the cap on the number of students who can participate in the Milwaukee Program; allows Milwaukee students to attend any private school in the state that enrolls in the choice program; raises the income limit for program eligibility to 300 percent of the federal level, or about $67,000 for a single-parent family of four; and lets participating high schools charge higher-income parents some tuition on top of the $6,442 voucher amount.
According to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, these changes will increase the number of voucher students in Milwaukee by about 3,000 students over two years, to a total of 22,900 in 2012-13.
Perhaps more significantly, the bill for the first time expanded the voucher program to a school district outside Milwaukee; it allowed up to 250 students in Racine to receive vouchers to attend private schools, beginning this fall. (A proposal to also expand vouchers to Green Bay was inserted into the budget by the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, but yanked from the final version.)
The Fiscal Bureau estimates these changes will collectively hike state net spending in Milwaukee and Racine by $16.9 million over the next two years.
That compares to a nearly $800 million cut in state aid to public schools over the same period.
The budget bill also contains a number of changes initially proposed as stand-alone legislation by Marklein, now vice chair of the Assembly's Education Committee.
These include allowing the state Department of Public Instruction to pay private choice schools directly, rather than by sending checks to parents that are signed over to schools.
Marklein says he introduced the bill after being contacted by Bender of School Choice Wisconsin. Records show that the group's research associate, Michael Ford, was involved in the process, reviewing and commenting on bill drafts.
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Bender says efforts to expand the choice program to Green Bay will continue, adding that "the conversation has been going on in Racine for some time," whereas the idea was only recently pitched as a possibility in Green Bay.
Among the bills that have been introduced and may be taken up this fall is SB 69, which would create an individual income tax credit for tuition costs incurred to send dependent children to private K-12 schools, up to $2,500 per child per year, depending on grade level.
The credit would be phased in over time. The state Department of Revenue has estimated it would reduce state tax revenues by $48 million in 2013, $68 million in 2014, $89 million in 2015, all the way up to $165 million in 2021.
The Legislature is also weighing a plan to create a new voucher program for disabled students. The bill, introduced in late April, drew furious opposition from disability rights advocates and the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, which pronounced it "flawed from an educational standpoint, a fairness standpoint, a school funding standpoint, a pupil rights standpoint, and an accountability standpoint."
Critics allege the bill as drafted would let private schools receive money for educating disabled students without any assurance they will provide the requisite services.
"That scares me to death," says Rep. Pope-Roberts, invoking the specter of a private school accepting the cash for a non-communicative student in a wheelchair and then having that child "sit in a corner for the day."
The bill is now being redrafted, and Bender is optimistic that this and other choice initiatives can yet advance: "There are some very strong choice supporters in the Assembly, especially, that did not play a starring role ... yet."
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication and other news media. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.