How School Voucher Interests Cashed in Here in Wisconsin

September 8, 2015

The special interests behind school vouchers in Wisconsin have gotten a mammoth return on their electioneering and lobbying investments.

School voucher program spending approved by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature will total nearly $1.2 billion between 2011 and 2017. That’s a return of about 15,600 percent on the more than $7.5 million that mostly out-of-state millionaires and billionaires who support vouchers have invested in campaign contributions, outside electioneering activities and lobbying in recent years.

A Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysis shows state spending on school vouchers will increase from about $146 million in taxpayer dollars in 2011-12 to about $258 million in 2016-17. During that time, Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature have cut state aid to public schools by nearly $1.1 billion, the bureau said.

The Milwaukee, Racine and statewide voucher programs, which provide state tax dollars to allow pupils to attend private and religious schools, are generally supported by Republicans as an alternative to state-funded public schools, and opposed by most Democrats, who claim voucher programs are ineffective, unaccountable, and reduce resources for public education.

While Walker and his legislative colleagues were increasing the size of the voucher program, wealthy voucher backers helped the governor and dozens of current Republican legislators keep their jobs.

The Washington D.C.-based American Federation for Children, a leading advocate of Wisconsin’s voucher programs, spent an estimated $5.4 million to support Republican candidates in Wisconsin elections between 2010 and 2014. The group spent $4.3 million on legislative elections, including an estimated $1.7 million on a handful of state Senate races targeted in the controversial 2011 and 2012 recall elections, and an estimated $1.1 million to help Walker win his 2012 recall election. Among the federation’s key advisers is political strategist and former GOP legislative leader Scott Jensen.

In addition to spending on outside electioneering activities, nearly four dozen wealthy individuals or couples from mostly outside the state who support Wisconsin’s voucher programs contributed more than $1.6 million to Walker and about five dozen Republican legislators and legislative fundraising committees between 2010 and 2014. GOP legislators controlled the Assembly and Senate by comfortable margins during most of that five-year period. Walker received more than $1.2 million in contributions and current Republican legislators and their two fundraising committees received about $362,000 from voucher supporters between 2010 and 2014.

After Walker, the GOP legislators and legislative fundraising committees that received the most voucher contributions between 2010 and 2014 were; the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, $36,400; Sen. Alberta Darling, of River Hills, $34,850; and Sen. Van Wanggaard, of Racine, $21,500.

The top contributors among voucher backers to Walker and Republican legislators between 2010 and 2014 were Robert and Patricia Kern, of Waukesha, founders of Generac Corp., $235,000; Foster and Lynnette Friess, of Jackson, Wyo., owners of Friess Associates, $131,700; Roger Hertog, a retired New York City financier, $120,000; and Bruce Kovner, of New York, N.Y., chairman of Caxton Alternative Management, and his wife, Suzie, $120,000.

Finally, lobby spending by three groups to increase state voucher spending and expand the size of the programs as well as oppose efforts to make voucher schools more accountable totals nearly $493,000 since 2011. Lobby spending was led by the American Federation for Children, which doled out nearly $403,000 between 2011 and June 2015 to influence the governor and the legislature. School Choice Wisconsin has spent about $88,000 on lobbying since 2011 and Hispanics for School Choice spent $1,761 during the first six months of 2015.