It’s not often that the Wall Street Journal goes to bat for a local school board candidate – and loses. But that’s exactly what happened on April 1 in Milwaukee. A plethora of corporate and right-wing ideologues threw their financial and media muscle behind John Gardner, the most outspoken, pro-voucher member of the Milwaukee School Board.
Gardner received a solid trouncing, winning only 41 percent of the vote. His defeat by former high school principal Tom Balistreri ended the 5-4 domination of the school board by pro-voucher members. Balistreri is a strong supporter of public education and pledged to build unity on a divided board.
As a two-term incumbent and the only citywide member on the nine-person board, Gardner had the backing from an array of forces that would be the envy of any right-wing wannabe: the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, John Walton of Wal-Mart, free-market academic Milton Friedman, the Washington Times, Betsy Devos of Amway Corporation, Indianapolis insurance executive Pat Rooney, and Michael Joyce, former head of the conservative Bradley Foundation. Gardner’s anti-teacher union, pro-privatization, and pro-voucher perspectives align him with conservative forces, but it’s his location in Milwaukee, the home of the largest publicly funded private school voucher program, that has generated such significant national support.
The Wisconsin state legislature set up Milwaukee’s voucher program in 1990, and the Milwaukee school board has no control over it whatsoever.
Why is the national right so interested in the composition of the Milwaukee School Board? With the June 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of voucher programs, conservatives are organizing to get similar legislation passed by as many state legislatures as possible. Colorado is the most recent example.
Several members of the Milwaukee School Board play an important role nationally in the movement for vouchers and privatization by writing about vouchers, speaking at national right-wing gatherings, and hosting visitors who come to Milwaukee to see the voucher experiment in action. To have a member of the Milwaukee School Board publicly proclaim that private-school vouchers help the public schools adds credibility and strength to the voucher school movement. (Individual board members are not required to release their personal income or travel expenses when their travel is financed by outside groups, so it is unknown how much personal financial support the pro-voucher board members receive via speaking engagements.)
Michael Joyce, who pushed school vouchers when he was president of the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, told The Weekly Standard,“John Gardner was the moral and intellectual heart of the school-choice movement in Milwaukee.” Just before the election, Joyce was quoted in the Milwaukee Business Journal saying, “If the pro-voucher candidates lose their majority, the message will be that voters were disillusioned with school choice.” While Gardner has received the most support, all of the pro-voucher incumbents relied heavily on the national conservative movement. For example, Joe Dannecker, who was seen as the most vulnerable of the other pro-voucher incumbents, received significant outside funding. A look at his campaign finance reports of Feb. 10 and March 25 of this year shows that of the nearly $16,000 in contributions he reported since January 1, 2003, more than 74 percent were from people who lived outside of Milwaukee and only a few were from people in his actual district. He squeaked by his opponent by just a few hundred votes.
The scope of right-wing support was impressive. In the 1999 election, Gardner spent more than $190,000, nearly four times as much as his opponent. His contributor lists both years have read like a Who’s Who in the national conservative movement and the Milwaukee business community.
That support may have broadened this year, thanks to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal on March 20 and an article in the conservative Washington Times three days later. The Wall Street Journal editorial, headlined: “The Empire Strikes Back,” was a thinly disguised fundraising appeal. According to the WSJ, the “Empire of the status quo” is the Milwaukee Teachers Union and its “national and state brethren.” The editorial asserted that Gardner’s “union-backed opponent” Tom Balistreri, former principal of Milwaukee’s Rufus King High School, was receiving $2 million worth of support from teachers’ unions. The Washington Times article quoted Gardner saying, “I know that they have a war chest of $2.4 million.”
Neither the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, nor Gardner offered any evidence for these ludicrous assertions. Teacher union leaders dismissed the notion with a laugh. The union’s political action committee gave the maximum allowed – $3000 – to Balistreri and $800 to three district candidates. They also made some limited independent expenditures – yard signs, mailings to their members, and some TV advertising – the total of which came nowhere close to the millions alleged.
Conservatives formed two new conduits to give money to the pro-voucher candidates. “The Fund for Choices in Education” was created in August to fund voucher supporters. According to a recent report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, this group has given $28,840 to citywide candidate John Gardner, and smaller amounts to the other four pro-voucher incumbents. The second group, “The Milwaukee Fund for Public Education,” reported that it gave nearly $50,000 to the five pro-voucher incumbents. The fund’s administrator is Bruce Thompson, a staunch voucher supporter and former school board president who was defeated two years ago by grassroots candidate Jennifer Morales, the city’s first Latina school board member.
In the aftermath of Gardner’s defeat, Morales reflected that she wished that the focus in Milwaukee school debates would broaden beyond vouchers. “Let’s move on to talk about some key issues like school funding equity or the unacceptable truancy rates.” Perhaps with Gardner no longer leading the pro-voucher faction on the school board, some serious talk and action will be possible.