Scott Jensen and Hispanics for School Choice-Both are part of an interlocking network of pro-voucher organizations aligned with the Republican Party.
By Barbara Miner, Feb. 18, 2012
News reports this week exposed the close working — and legally questionable — relationship between Republican legislators, lobbyist Scott Jensen and the pro-voucher group Hispanics for School Choice.
Those involved in the controversy have a long-standing working relationship that is part of a strategic alliance between right-wing billionaires; school vouchers supporters, and Republican Party operatives.
Consider this announcement on the website of “The Hispanic Conservative” more than a year ago, on Jan. 14, 2011:
Last week, Executive Board members of Hispanics for School Choice created somewhat of a buzz as they descended upon the State Capitol to circulate their legislative agenda. Associates from the American Federation of Children and School Choice Wisconsin accompanied HFSC in separate meetings with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, Education Committee Chair Steve Kestell, and Secretary of the Department of Administration Mike Huebsch to discuss a timetable of moving the School Choice program forward.
HFSC Board Members were also given exclusive entry to a closed caucus in the Grand Army of the Republic Hearing Room before Assembly Republicans – an access rarely granted to non-profit organizations of any sort for any reason. Before the 60-member caucus, Board Members of HFSC were introduced communicating the idea that HFSC aimed to be more of a resource to legislators than a needy lobbyist.[i]
Pro-voucher groups are some of the strongest and best-funded lobbyists in the Wisconsin legislature, and have played an increasingly central role in promoting Gov. Walker’s overall agenda. As state Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) noted last year, “The new 800-pound gorilla— actually it’s more of a 1,200-pound gorilla —is the tax-funded-voucher groups. They’ve become the most powerful lobbying entity in the state.”[ii]
Who is Hispanics for School Choice? What are its connections to Scott Jensen? What is the involvement of the American Federation for Children, a well-known conservative powerhouse headed by a former chair of the Republican Party in Michigan?
HISPANICS FOR SCHOOL CHOICE
Hispanics for School Choice received minimal press notice until Feb 17, 2012, when it was revealed that the group had been privy to election redistricting maps that even Democratic legislators had not seen. The maps were released to Jensen last summer, who in turn forwarded them to the head of Hispanics for School Choice in order to gain his support for the Republican redistricting effort and promote the guise of community involvement.[iii]
Hispanics for School Choice hosted its “coming out event” on January 24, 2011 — 10 days after boasting of its access to Republican leaders in the Wisconsin legislature. The group did not become a household name — but gained behind-the-scenes prominence during the debates over Gov. Scott Walker’s expansion of the voucher program last spring, including private meetings with Gov. Walker.
Zeus Rodriguez is president of the Board of Directors — and the person who received maps of the Republican legislature’s redistricting from Scott Jensen. (Rodriquez is also president of the St. Anthony School, which as a result of the voucher program has become the largest Catholic elementary school in the country. Officials from St. Anthony’s have been prominent at various legislative hearings on public funding of private and religious schools.)
Other board members of Hispanics for School Choice include Victor Huyke, owner of El Conquistador Newspaper; Daisy Cubias, Staff Assistant to Mayor Tom Barrett; Ivan Gamboa, VP of Tri-City Bank; and Aaron Rodriguez, owner of the Hispanic Conservative website.
The groups’ Advisory Board is chaired by James Klauser, former Secretary of Administration for Governor Tommy Thompson. Other members include Jose Delgado, founder of the American Transmission Company; Jose Vasquez, CEO of three non-profits in Milwaukee; Anselmo Villarreal, President and CEO of La Casa de Esparanza; and Susan Mitchell, President of School Choice Wisconsin.[iv]
Hispanics for School Choice lists its partners as School Choice Wisconsin and American Federation for Children.
On May 4, 2011, Gov. Walker hosted Hispanics for School Choice at the Capitol, holding private meetings with them and posing for a group photo.[v]
WHO IS SCOTT JENSEN?
Jensen served in the Wisconsin assembly from 1992 until 2006, when he was indicted and later convicted for having his staff work on campaign issues on state time. He is a senior adviser to the American Federation for Children/Alliance for School Choice. According to a Sept 21, 2011 report by Madison-based journalist Bill Lueders:
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. …
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. …
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.
WHO IS THE AMERICAN FEDERATION FOR CHILDREN?
The American Federation for Children is a national group founded in January 2010, with a budget of roughly $4 million.[vi] The federation is the most prominent national group in the movement to use public tax money to fund private and religious schools.
The group is led by Betsy DeVos, a former chair of the Republican Party of Michigan and the sister of Erik Prince, the leader of Xe, the mercenary outfit formerly known as Blackwater that led the privatization of U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Betsy is married to Dick DeVos, son of billionaire Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, who himself is a long-time supporter of right-wing causes.
Betsy DeVos has deep pockets — and her involvement in partisan politics goes back decades. Back in 1997 she wrote an op-ed in which she said her family “is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party.” She went on to say that she had decided “to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point.”[vii]
The federation is an outgrowth of Advocates for School Choice, which had also been headed by Betsy DeVos. The group became embroiled in controversy after one of its partner groups headed by DeVos, All Children Matter, was fined $5.2 million by Ohio election officials for illegally funneling contributions.[viii]
According to Madison-based journalist John Nichols, the group “was also fined for political misconduct in Wisconsin, where the group’s 2006 campaigning violated campaign finance laws by expressly urging voters to cast ballots against legislative candidates who backed public education.”[ix]
The federation works in collaboration with voucher and conservative groups across the country. Its partners include the Heartland Institute (recently in the news for its “Operation Angry Badger”[x]), the Heritage Foundation, and a range of pro-voucher organizations organized both nationally and on a state-by-state basis.[xi] In Wisconsin, its state ally is School Choice Wisconsin, headed by Susan Mitchell (who, as previously noted, is also on the board of Hispanics for School Choice. The interlocking agendas and personnel among pro-voucher groups would make a multinational conglomerate blush with envy.)
The American Federation for Children is a 501©4 of the non-profit Alliance for School Choice, and as such is allowed to make political donations. In addition to being a lobbyist, Jensen is a senior advisor for the federation. Jensen had long supported vouchers when in the state legislature; after his indictment, he was hired by the Alliance for School Choice in 2004 to promote school vouchers on a state-by-state level.
Madison-based journalist John Nichols, in a report in the Nation magazine, notes that the American Federation for Children “spent an estimated $820,000 on independent expenditures and phony issue ad activity in the 2010 fall legislative races.” The figures were based on data from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.[xii]
On May 9, 2011, the American Federation for Children invited Gov. Scott Walker to deliver a keynote address on school vouchers at its national policy summit in Washington, D.C.
A list of the funders of school voucher organizations reads like a Who’s Who of right-wing foundations and billionaires. Think Progress— a non-partisan liberal blog focusing on investigative journalism — outlined some of the funding links in a May 21, 2011 report. Funders just for the Alliance for School Choice alone included DeVos, the Wal Mart Foundation, the Chase Foundation of Virginia, the Charles Koch Foundation, and the powerful Walton Family Foundation (of Wal-Mart fame).
Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation has donated some $400,000 to the Alliance for School Choice over the years. [xiii] The Bradley Foundation has long been one of the most important ideological and financial supporters of vouchers. It made an estimated $41 million in grants for school voucher initiatives from 1986 to 2003 alone, and subsequent grants have maintained a similar pace.[xiv]
In Wisconsin, one of the most essential operatives in the school voucher movement is Susan Mitchell — head of School Choice Wisconsin and a board member of Hispanics for School Choice. School Choice Wisconsin had a budget of $1.279 million in 2009, and directors included conservative notables such as Tim Sheehy of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, former Lt. Governor and Republican state senator Margaret Farrow, and nationally prominent voucher advocate Howard Fuller (until January 2010). Mitchell’s compensation last year was more than $200,000.[xv]
— Barbara Miner, a Milwaukee-based journalist, has followed the voucher movement for more than 20 years. She is the author of the forthcoming book Lessons from the Heartland: Milwaukee Wisconsin, public schools, and the fight for America’s Future (New Press, Fall 2012).
[i] The Hispanic Conservative website is run by Aaron Rodriguez, secretary of Hispanics for School Choice. This excerpt, under the headline “A Buzz at the State Capitol,” is available at: http://www.thehispanicconservative.com/Hispanics-For-School-Choice/introducing-hispanics-for-school-choice.html.
[ii] Bill Lueders, “Selling Out Public Schools,” Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, The Capital Times, Sept. 21, 2011, accessed via host.madison.com.
[iii] “Jensen got early look at legislative district maps,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Feb. 18, 2012.
[iv] The Hispanic Conservative website, http://www.thehispanicconservative.com/Hispanics-For-School-Choice/introducing-hispanics-for-school-choice.html.
[v] Photos of the event, including a photo of Walker with the group’s leaders, are available at flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hispanics-for-school-choice/5691460810/in/set-72157626655429654
[vi] The American Federation for Children, 990 tax form for 2010.
[vii] For a multi-part series on DeVos and her crusade against public education, see the website on the religious right, “Talk to Action Reclaiming Citizenship, History and Faith” and its report available at: http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/4/20/232844/831.
[viii] Associated Press, March, 29, 2011. See: http://theintelligencer.net/page/content.detail/id/133747/School-choice-expanding-as-record-fine-languishes-.html?isap=1&nav=536
[ix] See John Nichols article from the Nation, Aug. 8, 2011 at: http://www.thenation.com/blog/162613/right-wing-billionaires-invest-wisconsins-recall-elections-save-school-privatization-age
[x] Operation Angry Badger was a $610,000 effort to: 1. Recruit and promote superintendents who support Act 10; 2. Explain the benefits of Act 10; 3. Document the shortcomings of public schools in Wisconsin; 4. Expose teacher pay in key districts; 5. Create blogs that shadow small town newspaper coverage of the controversy. The campaign was based on leaked documents on the institute’s 2012 budget. The institute said in a Feb 15, 2012 statement the documents were stolen, and the authenticity of the documents had not been confirmed. The statement did not specifically disown Operation Angry Badger.
[xii] See John Nichols article from the Nation, Aug. 8, 2011 at: http://www.thenation.com/blog/162613/right-wing-billionaires-invest-wisconsins-recall-elections-save-school-privatization-age
[xiii] Milwaukee Journal Sentinel searchable database on Bradley donations. Access at: http://www.jsonline.com/watchdog/dataondemand/133910113.html
[xiv] John J. Miller, “Strategic Investment in Ideas: How Two Foundations Reshaped America” The Philanthropy Roundtable, Washington, D.C. 2003. The report was based on Bradley and Olin Foundation annual reports, and interviews and assistance from foundation employees and grantees.
[xv] School Choice Wisconsin 990 tax form for 2010.