You may have seen this pro-school vouchers television ad recently, in advance of Monday’s 8:30 a.m. reconvening of West Virginia’s special legislative session on education.
A picture of Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state under President George W. Bush, appears, alongside audio of her saying “when I can look at your zip code and I can tell whether you’re going to get a good education, something has gone very, very wrong.”
An image and audio of Democratic President John F. Kennedy plays. The ad doesn’t note it, but it’s from his speech at Vanderbilt University’s 90th anniversary convocation.
“Only an educated and informed people will be a free people,” Kennedy says.
Then come two Republican presidents: Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan.
The “paid for by Americans for Prosperity-West Virginia” text appears as a narrator ends with: “Ask your legislator to support comprehensive education reform with education savings accounts.”
Education savings accounts, or ESAs, are vouchers.
If the House of Delegates, after it reconvenes Monday, passes Senate Bill 1040, parents will be able to receive public money to send their kids to private schools, including religious schools, or homeschool them.
The billionaire Koch brothers founded the national Americans for Prosperity group, and they have heavily funded it.
If you’d like to be “educated and informed” on who’s currently funding Americans for Prosperity’s West Virginia activities, Jason Huffman, the state director here, won’t help you.
“I’m not going to name any of the names,” Huffman said, “because it’s a situation where some people don’t want to disclose their names and we believe in their right to privacy and freedom of speech.”
He did estimate last week that his group had spent, since Jan. 1, an amount in the low six figures pushing for vouchers and charter schools.
“The spend is ongoing and I’d hate to give you a number that’s wrong,” he said.
For now, Huffman said “educational freedom” is “the No. 1 priority for our network in this state.” He estimated the group has reached 10 percent of the state’s population.
“Right now, the only folks that have the ability to have educational choices are wealthy enough to afford it, and we think that’s wrong,” he said.
The Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy has also been heavily pushing vouchers and charter schools. Cardinal Executive Director Garrett Ballengee wouldn’t reveal who’s been funding his organization last year and this year.
“We believe in privacy for private individuals,” Ballengee said. “Transparency for government, and privacy for private individuals.”
His group, however, lists its board members online.
They include Bill Cole, the former Senate president and former Republican gubernatorial candidate, and Monty Warner, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate and current YMCA of the Kanawha Valley president and chief executive officer.
Cardinal also filed Form 990s with the Internal Revenue Service, showing who funded them as late as 2017.
Indianapolis-based EdChoice provided $100,000, about 30 percent, of their revenue that year. That group also pushes for vouchers.
It was formerly called the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, after the Nobel-prize winning conservative economist Milton Friedman and his wife, Rose.
Another $50,000 came from Ken and Randy Kendrick.
Ken Kendrick is a Princeton native and West Virginia University graduate, according to a biography on WVU’s website. He’s now managing general partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, a Major League Baseball team.
Randy Kendrick has been a major donor in the Koch brothers’ political network, media outlets have reported. She’s a board member of the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute, which has also had a senior fellow pushing for vouchers in West Virginia.
Another former West Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate, Bill Maloney, gave $43,000. He declined comment for this article.
A further $117,000 came from DonorsTrust and Vanguard Charitable.
Those are two donor-advised funds, which people can contribute money to and receive tax deductions in return. The donors can then recommend what charities their donations go to, though technically the fund has control.
The Cardinal Institute is registered as a 501c3, a charity.
Cardinal’s 2015 Form 990 shows $37,000 from the State Policy Network, whose website says it’s dedicated to incubating think tanks and “defending the 50-state think tank network by disseminating best legal practices, providing critical resources when members are attacked, and fighting organized assaults on free speech and donor privacy.”
Cardinal pushes various positions, outside of vouchers and charter schools, that fiscally conservative donors may be interested in, like lower government spending and lower taxes.
“Let’s cut income taxes down to ... ohhhh, I don’t know ... zero?” Ballengee tweeted Wednesday in support of Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s call for lower taxes.
“Why discourage wealth-creation to any extent?” Ballengee tweeted.
“Folks fund us because they believe in the principles we hold,” Ballengee said last week. He said his group’s principles lead to the donations, “not vice versa.”
He said Keith Pauley, who grew up in St. Albans and is the former president of MATRIC in South Charleston and a former Republican House candidate, played a big role in the group’s founding.
Huffman, of Americans for Prosperity, said he’s a fifth-generation West Virginian, and so are his local activists.
“I think our activists would beg to differ with not being from here,” he said.
Both groups started in West Virginia in 2014, around the time that Republicans took over the state Legislature for the first time in about 80 years.
This year, the two groups have been pushing for vouchers and charter schools since the regular legislative session started in January.
On Jan. 23, the day before the Senate revealed its first version of a sweeping education overhaul bill that would’ve legalized vouchers and charter schools, there was a National School Choice Week event in Charleston.
Jerry Fisher, the then-executive director of the West Virginia Christian Education Association, helped kick it off with a prayer.
“God has given mankind the freedom to make choices, and today’s rally is all about that,” Fisher said to the hundreds of people filling a theater at the Coliseum and Convention Center. “We are trying to encourage and persuade the Legislature of West Virginia to approve school choice.”
In his prayer, Fisher gave thanks “for all of the different groups that came together here for this today, especially for the Cardinal Institute and all of these folks who are working so hard to educate West Virginia on the importance of this choice.”
Later in the event, Ballengee and Tyler Henry, an Americans for Prosperity employee, went along the aisles with buckets of candy for the kids.