Wealthy individuals throughout the country who support an expansion of school vouchers in Wisconsin have contributed nearly $1.3 million since 2009 to Republican Governor Scott Walker and dropped another $1.1 million to help him win his contentious 2012 recall election.
The largest contributions between 2009 and July 2014 to Walker from voucher supporters came from Robert and Patricia Kern of Waukesha, founders of Generac Corp., $220,000; investor Foster Friess and his wife, Lynnette, of Jackson, Wyo., $130,700; hedge fund founder Bruce Kovner and his wife, Suzie, of New York City, $120,000; and retired New York City financier Roger Hertog, $120,000.
Normally, this being a state news site, school board contests are not my beat. But the Rockwood School District in West St. Louis County has a candidate so eminently unsuitable to serve on the board that I wanted to get the word out.
Judging by comments Michael Geller made at a League of Women Voters candidate forum on March 8th, he has an odd way of showing his concern for the district.
Despite cutting $6.8 million in spending this year, the Rockwood district faces continuing budget shortfalls. All the other candidates said they would vote yes to place a bond issue on the ballot so that voters in the district could decide whether school taxes need to be raised. Not Geller. He would oppose allowing the district’s residents even to vote on that issue.
Rockwood’s Talented and Gifted Program is a model for districts across the nation, and the other candidates spoke in its support. They also support special needs education. Not Geller. His talented child is enrolled in a private school, and his special needs child is in a boarding school. If a child doesn’t conform to a ‘one size fits all’ mold, the parents should pay to school him elsewhere.
Except, wait. The parents should pay … unless they can get the taxpayers to do it for them. Mike Geller favors school vouchers. Vouchers would deprive public schools of desperately needed funds, using that money instead not only to pay for a private school for Mr. Geller’s gifted child or for boarding school for his special needs child, but also for putting children in religious schools.
Geller defended the idea of using public funds for religious schools by pointing out that “separation of church and state is not in the Constitution.” Yes and no. That exact phrase, it is true, does not occur in the Constitution. But the First Amendment implies it. Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase when he wrote that the First Amendment erected a “wall of separation” between the church and the state. Who would have a better take on the intent of the framers of the Constitution: Thomas Jefferson or Michael Geller?
The majority of Rockwood School District voters, proud as they are of their schools, are unlikely to want their tax dollars going to religious schools or to private schools for the gifted or to boarding schools for special needs students. It would be overstating the case to say that voters would as soon have Gaddafi as the Superintendent of Schools as they would a board member who approves of vouchers, but you get the idea. Most Rockwood residents would reject Geller if they knew what he stood for.
Rockwood voters need to understand that Mike Geller is a stealth candidate, someone who would undermine the district’s superb schools. He is inserting far right political ideology into the race for an office that has always been nonpartisan. The NEA, very sensibly, does not endorse him. And the voters should turn a cold shoulder to him.
The motto of school voucher advocates in Missouri must be, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, because big money donors to state legislators who favor vouchers have already given more campaign contributions–fourteen months before the elections!–than they did in 2004 and 2006.
In 2004, $385,340 was donated. Last year, even though it was an off year election, contributions went up; pro-voucher candidates received $403,840. So far in this election cycle, $483,850 has already been given. Of course, a major reason the contributions are so high this cycle is that between January and June there were no caps on contributions.
Indeed, now that the Supreme Court has put the kibosh on that travesty, Jay Nixon is returning all his over-the-limit contributions. But the big honcho in the pro-voucher camp, Rex Sinquefield (pictured), filed a legal argument with the Supreme Court asking that none of his donations be returned to him. His brief, almost but not quite, said: I bought ’em fair and square. Okay, what he actually said was that his political groups gave money early in the cycle because that’s when it helps the most, and he doesn’t want it back. For whatever that argument is worth.
Which brings us to Sinquefield’s two groups: All Children Matter and the infamous Show Me Institute.
All Children Matter exists in only ten states, and we’re among the lucky ones to be targeted. Most of the money for it comes from out-of-state, with less than a third coming from actual Missourians. Make that Missourian, singular, as in Rex Sinquefield. Ninety-five percent of the in-state contributions come from him.
The Show Me Institute, on the other hand, is based in St. Louis. The ProVote website tells us that:
Their work “is rooted in the American tradition of free markets and individual liberty” and “seeks to move beyond the 20th-century mindset that every problem has a government.”
These groups and their legislative supporters want Missouri tax money going to private schools. They have a problem, though: the Missouri constitution forbids that. So they have come up with an ingenious shell game to circumvent the law. It’s called tax credits, and here’s how it works. Say I want to send my child to a Catholic parochial school. If a tax credit law were passed, I could get the Missouri taxpayers to foot most of the bill if I donated to a scholarship fund at that school. I would give the fund $1000, and–this is if the pro-voucher people could ever get the law they want passed–the state would tell me that I get an eighty percent tax credit. In other words, I would get to take $800 of that $1000 off my Missouri taxes. Then the school conveniently would happen to award that $1000 scholarship to my child! Can you imagine such a coincidence? What are the odds?
That way, you see, Missouri wouldn’t have to give any money at all to a private school. The state would still be out $800, but technically it wouldn’t be supporting a religious school. So far, each attempt to pass this law has been resoundingly defeated. Thank goodness, because if it had passed, it would have cost Missouri $40 million dollars this year.
A few of the legislators voting for this shell game are doing so in good conscience. Rodney Hubbard, Talibdin El-Amin, and Ted Hoskins, for example, are concerned about the plight of students in the St. Louis City Schools. Most of the legislators who voted for it, however, are hypocrites. They claim to be worried about poor children stuck in bad schools, but almost without exception they voted for Blunt’s Medicaid cuts.
And anyway, the poor children aren’t very likely to be helped by these tax credits. Even if parents of children in inner city schools could afford their share of the tuition, the religious schools reject two out of three children who apply. They take the cream of the crop.
No, the push for tuition tax credits is aimed at helping the affluent. Erlaine Eltoomi mentioned at the recent West County Dems meeting that some churches have contrived another back door voucher plan. Impatient that no tuition tax credits have been passed, some churches are declaring that any money a parishioner gives above a certain amount can be directed toward tuition at that church’s school. Church donations, you see, are tax deductible. That’s one more reason I’d favor doing away with tax deductions for church donations.
Look, if we’re going to get stuck with an extra forty million bill for education, let’s invest that money in the public schools, the poorest ones, and see if we can actually solve some of the problems.
Thanks go to Fired Up! for the photo of Rex Sinquefield.