When an Idaho judge forced the group Education Voters of Idaho, Inc. to reveal the names of its donors just a week before Election Day, reporters and the public pounced on the data. Several things stood out immediately.
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- There were only 25 large donors revealed despite the populist image that EVI leaders had cultivated.
- New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had given $200,000 to the group, apparently at the request of Idaho First Lady Lori Otter.
- The Yes and No camps on these three education reform ballot measures had raised a lot of money for an Idaho ballot measure, even if they were not the most expensive referendum campaigns ever.
But Bloomberg’s interest in Idaho’s education reforms is not as random as implied by the Lori Otter in Sun Valley anecdote. Bloomberg’s family foundation is a major donor to the Foundation for Excellence in Education. The Foundation for Excellence in Education supports and tracks education reform efforts across the country that line up with its vision of, “an education system that ensures each and every student achieves his or her God-given potential for learning and prepares all students for success in the 21st century economy,” and mission to “ignite a movement of reform, state by state, to transform education for the 21st century.” The Foundation’s board is led by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who held a fundraiser in Tampa, Florida to support the three Idaho education referenda. The group maintains a page on Idaho’s initiatives, including the merit pay, or “pay for performance,” measure that Idaho voters rejected in Proposition 2 last week and the laptops/technology for students plan that Proposition 3 repealed.
Bloomberg has also gotten credit for shaking up New York City’s school system, including limiting teacher tenure, closing traditional schools and replacing them with charter schools and favoring merit pay. And a Nation article last month linked him to a recent coup on the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Other donors to the EVI campaign have an even more direct stake in Idaho’s education reforms.
Joe Scott, grandson of supermarket pioneer Joe Albertson, was the single largest donor to EVI with a $250,000 contribution. According to a 2011 Associated Press report, Scott made millions of dollars from K-12 Inc., a for-profit education purveyor that runs the Idaho Virtual Academy, an online charter school. At the same time, his family foundation, The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, which according to the Associated Press report linked above, shares an address and phone number with Scott’s investment firm, has pushed online education and Luna’s reform agenda, buying supportive newspaper ads across the state and pumping donations into Idaho schools to promote online learning.
When Scott’s large donation to EVI was made public, the Foundation, of which he is the chairman, issued the following statement: “The donation made by Joe B. Scott to the Education Voters of Idaho fund was made by Mr. Scott as a private, concerned citizen. The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation was not involved in any way in the contribution and no Foundation funds were used.”
John J. Fisher, heir to The GAP fortune, is chairman of the Charter School Growth Fund, a “venture philanthropy” that invests seed money in charter school companies. He also chairs the board of KIPP, the largest charter school operator in the country, with a network of 125 public charter schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. KIPP, or the Knowledge is Power Program, was featured in the popular film “Waiting for Superman.” Fisher, a San Francisco resident, put $5,000 into the EVI coffers. He’s also funded Democratic candidates like California’s Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and and California Senator Diane Feinstein and Republicans, including Mitt Romney and Speaker of the House John Boehner.
One interesting link, revealed in the network map we published, is Fisher’s contribution to Brian C. Johnson’s unsuccessful primary campaign for the California State Assembly. Johnson, a fellow Princeton and Stanford alumnus, Teach for America graduate and Democrat, was bankrolled by charter school advocates, including Fisher, Bloomberg and Frank E. Baxter, according to the FEC data on our chart.
Frank E. Baxter was the U.S. ambassador to Uruguay under the Bush Administration and is chairman of the Alliance for College Ready Public Schools, a nonprofit corporation which operates a network of 21 public charter schools in the Los Angeles area. He supports Republican candidates almost exclusively. Baxter contributed $5,000 to defeat the Idaho education props as well.
John D. Bryan, of Lake Oswego, Oregon, put up $10,000 for EVI. Bryan is a major funder of charter school expansion across the country, though his family foundation, The Challenge Foundation, which according to a progressive North Carolina policy group, helped fund “The Cartel,” an anti-public education documentary, as well as education reform campaigns in several states.
Foster Friess, is the Jackson, Wyoming based investor who heavily supported Rick Santorum’s short-lived campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, through the Red, White and Blue FundSuper PAC. He put more than $2 million into the PAC, and supported many other conservative PACs and candidates. Friess donated $25,000 to EVI in September, before the group was forced to reveal the names of its donors.
Friess is outspoken on his conservative beliefs, and told Mother Jones during the Republican National Convention that he planned to switch his giving from Super PACs, which report the names of contributors, to “social welfare organizations,” which can take anonymous donations.
EVI, the pro-Luna Laws PAC, argued that it was a social welfare organization in trying to conceal the names of its donors. But Idaho’s Sunshine Law, passed in 1974 by citizen initiative, trumped federal campaign finance disclosure rules in the eyes of the court.
District Judge Mike Wetherell made a compelling argument for transparency in his decision:
“Nothing is more critical to the existence of real democracy and the preservation of the legal framework of the Republic than full, honest information provided to voters who may then do with that information what they will. Understanding who is attempting to influence their decision is part of a voter’s analysis of whether he or she agrees with the reasons and goals of those who are attempting to lobby them. Knowledge of who backs or opposes a ballot measure can motivate a voter to look more deeply into the merits of their arguments and try to discern what those who lobby the voters hope to gain or fear to lose. If actions speak louder than words, then the expenditure of resources―money and time―speaks more loudly still. No one doubts that there are voters who are uninterested in those who fund drives to oppose or support candidates or ballot measures but many voters do care. The voters have a right to the most full, most accurate information they can get in spite of the many obstacles placed in their way by those who would prefer to hide behind catchy, vague names. Voters are entitled to know who is standing behind the curtain. Idaho voters passed the Sunshine Initiative to give themselves the right to see who is trying to influence their vote and they authorized the Secretary of State to protect the rights of all Idaho citizens. Nothing has been shown which overrides the strong, substantial interest of the citizens of Idaho in knowing who is seeking to influence them as they exercise their right to vote.”
EVI was not the only group funding campaigns for or against the Luna Laws in the recent campaign cycle. We review it’s funding in detail here because of the way these funders were revealed to the public. Other players included:
- Yes for Idaho Education raised almost $1 million to support the Luna Laws, the bulk of the financing coming from Melaleuca, the Idaho Falls based company run by Frank VanderSloot.
- Parents for Education Reform was a PAC that mostly worked with EVI funding, plus contributions from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and from Students First, the group founded by controversial former Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee.
- Vote No on Props 1, 2, 3 raised more than $2.7 million to oppose the “Luna Laws,” including large contributions from the Idaho Education Association and the National Education Association.
- Idaho Republicans for our Schools received only minimal funding from the teachers’ union PAC to oppose the props.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.