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School Choice Group Grows as Force in State Elections

By Michele McNeil — September 26, 2006 5 min read
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When Utah state Rep. David N. Cox persuaded fellow Republicans to vote against a school voucher bill last year, he did more than help doom the idea. He became an election-year target.

Through his actions, the lawmaker, who is a 5th grade teacher in Lehi, Utah, angered the school choice movement and caught the attention of a pro-voucher group called All Children Matter.

The group targeted Mr. Cox as part of a more-than-$7-million campaign this year to get supporters of tuition vouchers and other forms of school choice into legislative and governors’ offices in at least 10 states. Headquartered in Grand Rapids, Mich., All Children Matter works with local affiliates to defeat candidates not just on school issues, but also by finding wedge issues, such as taxes, immigration, same-sex marriage, and drugs.

The strategy worked against Mr. Cox: He lost his primary to a pro-voucher Republican.

“I don’t think there’s anything they wouldn’t have done to defeat me,” Mr. Cox said. He said the group’s local affiliate sent out a postcard that seemed to twist a vote he cast on a resolution urging Congress to help children of illegal immigrants. Mr. Cox said he was painted as a supporter of illegal immigration. “I think they’re unscrupulous,” he said. Mr. Cox was elected in 1998 and has since worked against school vouchers.

The group defends its tactics, saying they are similar to those of teachers’ unions, the political parties, and other groups that seek to influence elections. “We try to be politically savvy,” said Greg Brock, All Children Matter’s executive director. “We don’t try to inject our issue into the debate, because that may not be the big issue in the race.”

‘A New Gunslinger’

The national group and its network of local political action committees are targeting not only Utah this year, but also Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, South Carolina, and Wisconsin—states where they were active during the 2004 elections. This year, they’re also supporting candidates in Arizona, Ohio, and Iowa, which have recently enacted school choice laws. In Arizona’s primary last month, the group spent at least $35,000 to help defeat moderate Republican state Sen. Toni Hellon, who is the chairwoman of her chamber’s K-12 legislative committee and has opposed school vouchers.

All Children Matter is also involved in at least one governor’s race. The group donated $10,000 in August to Ohio GOP candidate Kenneth Blackwell, who is currently Ohio’s secretary of state. He has made expanding school choice part of his campaign agenda.

Mr. Brock said the group will spend more than $7.6 million during the 2006 state elections.

Mostly financed by a handful of mega-rich entrepreneurs—including the founding families of Amway Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.—All Children Matter is becoming an influential political arm of the school choice movement.

This kind of influence was badly needed, said Clint Bolick, the president of the Alliance for School Choice, a Phoenix-based advocacy organization. “There’s a new gunslinger in town,” he said. “Now, legislators know the school choice community will not turn its back on those who will take the risk.”

Making an Impact

All Children Matter is a small political action committee with a big bank account. The group was started in 2003, three years after a state voucher initiative failed in Michigan. That effort was led by former Michigan state GOP Chairwoman Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick DeVos Jr., who is running for governor in Michigan this year against Democratic incumbent Jennifer M. Granholm.

Mr. DeVos, whose family made its fortune with the Amway company, originally known for direct sales of cleaning products, was the founding chairman of All Children Matter before stepping down to run for governor. Betsy DeVos is now its chairwoman.

In 2004, its first major election cycle, All Children Matter reported raising $9.5 million from 34 donors, including members of the family of the late Sam Walton, who founded Wal-Mart. The Waltons gave $6.4 million, according to Internal Revenue Service public records. The donor list also included Dick DeVos and Bruce Kovner, a New York City investor and the board chairman of the Juilliard School, for $500,000 each.

The group is often accused of bringing out-of-state money to local races, running negative ads, and going after candidates on issues other than education. Mr. Brock counters that he’s copying other political-action groups, and lobbying on behalf of families who don’t have the time or money to do so.

In Wisconsin this year, the group dug up a possible voting-fraud issue with a state Senate candidate, prompting Democrat Donovan Riley, a voucher foe, to drop out of the primary last month. Two years ago in Indiana, the group ran ads accusing a legislative candidate of supporting same-sex marriage.

One of the group’s biggest victories, school choice advocates say, came in 2004 in Utah. Then-Gov. Olene Walker, a Republican who had vetoed a voucher bill for special-needs children, was defeated in her primary after All Children Matter worked with its local affiliate to send out critical direct-mail pieces and mobilize grassroots supporters.

‘On Notice’

Though All Children Matter bills itself as a counterpart to the teachers’ unions, there’s a big difference, argues Julie Terbrock, the St. Louis organizer for the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition, a grassroots group of more than 40 labor unions and community organizations.

“At least when it comes to teachers’ unions, these groups have members here,” she said. “And even though the teachers’ unions may get money from out of state, they’re acting on behalf of their members here.”

During Missouri’s primary last month, All Children Matter supported seven legislative candidates; four of them won. One was Rep. Rodney R. Hubbard, a St. Louis Democrat elected in 2002 who has supported school vouchers. “All Children Matter has just started becoming a factor here,” said Mr. Hubbard, who added that the group tends to become involved just before an election. “For a long time, no one wanted to support school choice, and it was hard to stick your neck out.”

Even when All Children Matter loses a race, it’s not a total loss. Mr. Brock said, “Other legislators are now on notice that we’re not just going to sit idly by.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2006 edition of Education Week as School Choice Group Grows as Force in State Elections

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