AFP bragged that it spent $500,000 in Tennessee on Education/Common Core-related fights in the six weeks prior to the August elections. AFP also cited the new WCS board as a major victory. How much of that cool half mill went to the WCS board race?
We estimate that AFP spent more than $50,000 on WCS board races during the election. This is a conservative estimate. (Where did the other $450K go?) The bulk of their money appears to have been spent on a huge influx of mailers that arrived right before Election Day. Almost everybody we know (including unlikely voters) in the four contested districts (45,872 voters) received at least three pieces of mail – glossy, two-sided jumbo postcards that warned that the incumbents were “letting Obama run Williamson Co. Schools.” We talked to multiple mail shops, printers, etc., and estimate that the all-in cost of design, printing, mailing and list services was over $50,000 for the mailers based on the number of voters in the districts and per unit cost for mailers of this quality.
AFP declined to tell the Tennessean how much they spent in Williamson County and campaign finance law doesn’t make them. This is so-called “dark” money that doesn’t have to be reported as a contribution. These pieces were technically for the public’s “education.” The mailers had candidates’ phone numbers, instructions to “thank” the candidates, perfect high-resolution photographs (somehow procured), but because they don’t say “VOTE for _____” they are “educational” and not subject to higher reporting standards. This is all legal as we understand it.
Each of the four board members (Burgos, Cash, Curlee, and Emerson) who benefitted from this support can honestly state that they didn’t receive any money from Americans for Prosperity. And they will be right, technically. Each of the four did, however, get what most common sense observers would call a pretty nice gift of support from AFP. One local headline reported it this way: “Americans for Prosperity Claims Victory in Williamson County School Board Race.”
Total estimated spending by AFP on four contested races: $50,000
Everybody likes to take credit for a win, but money does matter in elections. Let’s see how the AFP contribution stacks against other contributions.
Susan Curlee and Beth Burgos have explicitly stated that they did NOT know about the mailers. AFP used high resolution photos of each of the four candidates (not something you can copy off a website), so unless there is coordinated theft involved, it looks like someone connected with each of the four candidates shared those photo files with AFP. (Maybe the candidates could ask AFP?)
Why does it matter? Privatization. AFP and their allies have made it clear that they want to use the fight over Common Core as a way to drive down support for public schools and then to open the door to vouchers and other forms of privatization.
- Current AFP Chairman David Koch and his brother Charles G. Koch helped start and fund AFP. David Koch ran for president on a platform of getting rid of public schools altogether.
- On July 23, 2014, representatives from the Charles G. Koch Foundation held a forum in Nashville to promote vouchers for Tennessee. A representative from the foundation reportedly would not comment when asked if the foundation had a “financial play” related to vouchers in the state.
- All six of the new board members raised their hands at one forum to indicate they were for vouchers (aka taking public money and diverting it to private schools). UPDATE: On 9/11, Jay Galbreath wrote that after doing more research, he does not support vouchers and charters in Williamson County. At the Let’s Talk School event at CHS on 10/28, Dan Cash said he was for vouchers if there are “no strings attached” once public money follows a child to a private school. Susan Curlee said she would have to review the evidence and consider it if the “metrics” supported vouchers. At the LTS event on 10/30, both Dr. Beth Burgos and Candy Emerson stated unequivocally that they would NOT support vouchers in Williamson County.
AFP is a rich, powerful, national political powerhouse. When they say they have a plan, we believe them. When they say the Common Core fight is a way to push for privatization and vouchers, we believe them then too. We are glad to see board members Burgos and Emerson move away from vouchers, and we will keep a close eye on this issue and related AFP initiatives in Williamson County.