Commentary: The dark money behind the push for vouchers, ‘divisive concepts’ legislation

February 25, 2022 5:46 am
Money attached to a fish hook

“Big money has a big weakness: It usually backs unpopular positions.” (Getty Images)

As education debates roil New Hampshire on issues ranging from vouchers to outlawing the discussion of “divisive concepts” (accurate history) to teachers’ loyalty, the dark money behind these policies slips below the radar. When right-wing forces tried to privatize public education in Massachusetts, community groups and teachers unions used my research to help expose the billionaires hiding behind the upbeat-named reform groups. Disclosing the hidden out-of-state millions behind these undemocratic maneuvers can help save New Hampshire public education, too.

Dark money is limitless millions used by the wealthy to set the policy agenda and pass their preferences – which involves lowering their own taxes, destroying unions, and providing profit opportunities. Where do they put their dollars?

Most states have a think tank affiliated with the State Policy Network, a Koch-backed clearinghouse that pushes corporate wish lists. In New Hampshire the SPN affiliate is the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, which is supported by Koch and the Koch-related Donors Capital Fund, which conceals the true investors behind its grants. Still, when an established center like Bartlett issues a report on vouchers, it gets public attention and respectability.

The State Policy Network is part of the political network employed by corporate interests to transform state policies. Another is Koch’s political organization, Americans for Prosperity. It was AFP’s mail and door-to-door campaign that contributed to an unanticipated explosion in the first year of the voucher program. According to the New Hampshire Union Leader, where state Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut predicted that 28 students would seek vouchers, 1,635 were actually approved, unexpectedly draining about $8 million from public schools. For Koch operations like AFP, which seek to undermine public schools, that kind of blunder is actually good news.

Soon after the divisive concepts language passed, Commissioner Edelblut launched a website for anyone to snitch on a teacher. Moms for Liberty NH, a branch of a group launched in 2021 in Florida, quickly put a $500 bounty on the head of the first teacher to be reported.

Moms for Liberty claims to be getting by on T-shirt sales. But on June 15 former Fox News celebrity Megyn Kelly hosted a fundraiser for the group (top ticket: $20,000). In January 2022 Moms co-hosted a two-day conference featuring a keynote speech from former Trump Cabinet secretary Ben Carson and a performance by The Gatlin Brothers. It will take some time to sort out the true money behind Moms for Liberty (that’s the thing with dark money) but it’s clear already that the group is tied in to well-financed right-wing politics.

Any New Hampshire parent who has worked a school bake sale might ask how a recently formed “moms” group has registered three federal political action committees including a SuperPAC that can take in unlimited donations. Moms for Liberty has.

Vouchers did not pass as a stand-alone bill but as a part of last year’s budget. The Legislature also passed language through the budget forbidding teachers from teaching divisive concepts (in essence, accurate history of race relations). Budgets have to pass to keep the state’s doors open so politicians sometimes bury substantive matters in the budget in order to avoid making an identifiable vote on unpopular policies. It’s hiding from democracy.

And the politicians had good reason to hide. As Reaching Higher NH reported in May 2021, New Hampshire residents opposed vouchers and divided on the accurate teaching of history. “Of the nearly 8,000 people who turned out at the public hearings, six out of seven opposed the (vouchers) proposal.” A UNH Granite State poll confirmed that New Hampshirites oppose vouchers.  On divisive concepts, which Republicans think means Critical Race Theory, voters were evenly divided. Both questions broke along partisan lines.

In Massachusetts in 2016 the issue and names were different: Families for Excellent Schools. Education Reform Now. Advancing Obama’s Legacy on Charter Schools (despite the title, a conduit for money from America’s richest family, the Waltons of Arkansas). All dark money. I went to work piecing together the likely true donors and the trail led back to a handful of Boston hedge fund giants. The teachers unions and community groups used my research to counter attack and the ballot measure was overwhelmingly defeated.

Big money has a big weakness: It usually backs unpopular positions. Just like in Massachusetts, big money is propping up positions the people of New Hampshire don’t want. To defeat these schemes, follow the money.

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Maurice T. Cunningham
Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham, JD, PhD, is a retired associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the author of "Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization."