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Players in school voucher movement hold summit in D.C.

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/2010/07/MahurinEcon_Thumb5.jpgThe American Federation for Children hosted its second annual National Policy Summit at the Washington Marriott in Washington, D.C., Monday. The group is one of the nation’s largest organizations supporting school choice — a political movement that advocates for parochial, private, and charter schools to play a bigger role in public education in the form of voucher programs and tax credits to businesses that support school choice initiatives.

AFC is headed by Betsy DeVos, former chair of the Michigan Republican Party; she is married to former Republican candidate for Michigan Gov. Dick DeVos, son of famed billionaire Richard DeVos, who made his fortune through the success of household appliance and manufacturing giant Amway. Betsy and Richard DeVos have been longtime advocates of school choice, setting up an intricate web of nonprofit organizations that put money behind candidates who support shifting tax dollars from public schools to private and charter institutions. As John Nichols of The Nation reports, AFC is a rebranding of older groups affiliated with the DeVos family that were slapped with fines for illegal campaign practices.

Headliners for the two-day event include controversial Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former chancellor of D.C. public schools Michelle Rhee and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett — all supporters of school choice initiatives. In attendance were also a coterie of investment and real estate moguls, like Julian Robertson and Albert Ratner, who have given millions of dollars to the school choice movement.

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/School-Voucher-Summit-May-9.jpgGov. Corbett gives a history lesson on U.S. poverty and education, explains "poverty's long true companion has been family dysfunction."

AFC’s political orientation is difficult to detect. While the sponsors of the policy summit include conservative stalwarts American Legislative Exchange Council — a conservative free-market nonprofit that supports state ballot initiatives curtailing college student voting rights — and Walmart-funded The Walton Family Foundation, groups like Hispanic CREO and Black Alliance for Educational Options counter the feeling of heavy-handed partisanship. Even Robertson, operator of one of the first hedge funds, joined AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in calling on Congress to raise taxes on the wealthy in 2010.

As many of the speakers referred to studies that paint the public school system in dire straits, the popular refrain throughout the first day of the summit was the belief school choice transcended politics and ideology. Giving a keynote address in a portion of afternoon called, “The Urgency of School Choice,” Gov. Corbett said, “Next to national defense, [school choice] is right there as to what we need to be doing.” Echoing one of his campaign slogans, Gov. Corbett stressed educational reform must include making funding portable, saying public money for education belongs to the students and parents.

His state of Pennsylvania began legislative proceedings this week on a school choice bill, Senate Bill 1. If passed, the new law would expand a 10-year program that offers tax credits to businesses that donate money to organizations providing subsidies for private school tuition costs and sweep in a comprehensive school voucher program. The bill is receiving some bipartisan support; Democrat and school choice supporter Sen. Anthony H. Williams of Philadelphia is a co-sponsor of the bill.

The summit was just as concerned with how its messaging is perceived as with the message itself. Dr. Frank Luntz, a pollster and political consultant specializing in testing public attitudes to key words, lectured the audience on how to better communicate the goals of the school choice movement. He cautioned that roughly half of Republicans believe access to good schools is a privilege, not a right, explaining that more work needs to be done convincing the right than the left.

Luntz released a collection of his findings in 2010, outlining his nine communication commandments that make the best use of the most impacting words that the public finds most compelling.

Commandment number seven reads, in part: “Play the America card–often. Embrace ‘American Exceptionalism’ and encourage people to embrace the principle of exceptionalism in schools.” Number three says: “While positive imagery and arguments are comforting and popular, it’s the negative ideas and fear of failure that move people to action.” That sentiment is paired with the efficacy of negative images: “A school with boarded up windows and broken glass is the single most frightening visual of a school in trouble.”

2011 has been a good year for school choice advocates. The Students for Opportunity and Results Act (SOAR), sponsored by Speaker of the U.S. House John Boehner, entered law as part of the federal budget Continuing Resolution. The new law opens Washington, D.C. to school choice programs and is projected to cost $300 million from 2012-2016, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Last week, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed into law School Scholarships Act (HEA 1003), giving low-income students up to $4,500 in tuition assistance to attend K-8 private schools. The law sets no award limit for high school students. And though the Arizona state Supreme Court ruled a statewide voucher program is unconstitutional in 2009, Gov. Jan Brewer approved legislation in April that creates savings accounts for students with disabilities who opt for private schools to attend private schools that better fit their needs.

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