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Learning the Fitzwalkerstan Way: Wisconsin's Walker Pushes Privatization of Education | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Learning the Fitzwalkerstan Way: Wisconsin's Walker Pushes Privatization of Education

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker continues to court national support for an extreme agenda of attacking public employees and public services while diminishing local democracy and shifting public money to private political allies. Despite the fact that Walker’s moves have been widely condemned in his home state, the hyper-ambitious career politician has repeatedly suggested that he will not moderate his positions because he wants to shift the tenor of politics and policymaking far beyond Wisconsin.

Walker’s stance has earned him talk as a possible darkhorse contender for a place the 2012 Republican nod and the governor has not discouraged it.

To that end, Walker was in Washington Monday night to deliver a keynote address at the innocuously-named American Federation for Children’s “School Choice Now: Empowering America’s Children” policy summit. The event is actually a key annual gathering of advocates for privatizing public education, and of some of the biggest funders of right-wing political projects nationally.

Walker's appearance comes at a time when education cuts are becoming a front-and-center issue, as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has stirred an outcry in the nation’s largest city by proposing to layoff thousands of teachers.

But while other officials are proposing deep cuts and layoffs, Wisconsin’s governor has emerged the hero of the right-wing groups that argue for the most extreme measures in the battle to privatize public education.

This bunch loves Scott Walker. They hail him as “one of the nation’s most visible leaders” on their issues. 

“In both of his previous elected offices, Walker distinguished himself as an outspoken advocate for school choice, including both private school choice and public charter schools,” declared an American Federation for Children announcement of Walker’s appearance before the nation’s primary proponents of undermining public education by shifting taxpayer dollars into school vouchers, tax credit scholarships and similar schemes.

In addition to his much-publicized proposal to strip teachers of collective bargaining rights and to make it dramatically harder for their unions to advocate for small class sizes and other priorities, Walker’s budget plan seeks to cut funding for local schools and reduce the authority of local school boards to make decisions that defend and strengthen public education in their communities. It also outlines a number of initiatives designed to clear the way for and encourage private-school choice schemes. 

“Private school choice” describes the practice of taking taxpayer dollars and shifting them to schools that are operated by non-profit and for-profit concerns – including corporations. It is a high priority of right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups that see breaking teacher unions as a critical policy and political goal for their movement. And it is a top priority for Michigan billionaires Dick and Betsy DeVos.

Dick DeVos is a former Republican nominee for governor of Michigan and Betsy DeVos is a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party. But the couple’s real political work has involved the direction of tens of millions of dollars into the ideological and electoral infrastructure that supports school privatization.

“Dick DeVos has used his family's fortune and status to create an intricate national network of non-profits, political action committees and federal groups known as 527's that effectively fund the political arm of the school voucher movement,” noted a People for the American Way study of the political projects of the heir to the Amway fortune and his wife. “Nowhere is the impact of the DeVos family fortune greater, though, than in the movement to privatize public education.”

Betsy DeVos, the chairman of the American Federation of Children, has for decades been a prime mover in campaigning for school choice – and in funding political groups that have spent millions to benefit Scott Walker and candidates like him.

Walker got $70,000 in direct contributions last year from "choice" advocates. But the real money was spent on so-called "independent" campaigning by groups that poured hundreds of thousands of dollars in promoting Walker and his legislative allies and attacking supporters of public education.

Betsy DeVos has for many years been a high-stakes political player. But that does not mean groups with which she is associated have always played by the rules.

One of her groups, the political action committee “All Children Matter,” was fined a record $5.2 million by the Ohio Elections Commission after it was charged with illegally shifting money into the state to support candidates considered friendly to private-school “choice” initiatives.

"All Children Matter" was also fined for political misconduct in Wisconsin, where the secretive group’s 2006 campaigning violated campaign finance laws by expressly urging voters to cast ballots against legislative candidates who were strong backers of public education.

Those troubles led to the evolution of “All Children Matter” into "American Federation for Children," which has collected money from a who’s who of right wing millionaires and billionaires, including the political operations of Charles and David Koch – top donors to Scott Walker’s 2010 campaign and (in the case of David), the subject of a much-publicized prank phone call to Walker during the current dispute in Wisconsin.

An ardent backer of Walker and his legislative agenda, the American Federation for Children "spent an estimated $820,000 on independent expenditures and phony issue ad activity in the 2010 fall legislative races,” according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

The federation has emerged as a major player on the side of the six Republican senators who face recall efforts because of their support for Walker’s anti-labor legislation – just as they would certainly be big backers of any effort to protect the governor from recall.

But the DeVos family appears to have bigger plans for Walker. 

In celebrating the governor’s DC appearance, Betsy DeVos went on and on about how “excited” her group was to welcome Walker to Washington and how he “shares our (beliefs).”

“Governor Walker is leading the battle to bring hope for a brighter future…” she gushed, employing precisely the sort of “new Reagan” rhetoric that Walker and the caller he thought was David Koch talked about in that conversation where the governor declared: “This is our moment, this is our time to change the course of history.”

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