Updated (see below in italics)
On Tuesday, April 7th, Wisconsin voters will chose between Tony Evers and Rose Fernandez for the post of State Superintendent of Public Instruction. For a myriad of reasons having to do with experience, knowledge, recognition of key problems with state finance and accountability measures, the proven ability to work with a wide variety of stakeholders, a string record of working to improve the public schools where the vast majority of our youth will continue to be educated — I’m backing Tony Evers.
In her campaign, Fernandez has belittled experience and knowledge, and attacked those who have been in the trenches working everyday to maximize the opportunities of Wisconsin’s children.
The contrast with Fernandez in both qualifications and policy is huge. There is also a enormous disparity between the version of events portrayed by the Fernandez campaign that thrust her into the public eye and the actual reality of what took place.
In defining her narrative, she has continually constructed an image of herself as an outsider, a “mom on a mission.” Her campaign has made much of her role in the passage of a bill, that after a legal ruling that threatened virtual charter schools, was able to rewrite the rules on licensing, accountability and preserved funding levels. The short version of this chronicle is that Fernandez, with a scrappy band of fellow parents, “took on the educrats and the powerful teachers union and won.”
For example, her website biography reads in part: “As the leader of a grassroots’ parent-student-teacher coalition, Rose has taken on the education establishment…and won.” A recent press release included this version:
In recent years when public online charter schools, otherwise known as virtual schools, were threatened by a WEAC- and DPI backed lawsuit, Rose Fernandez led the counter attack. In 2008, together with her fellow coalition members, she mobilized a legislative, legal and public relations strategy that saw WEAC and the education bureaucracy crushed by a rare feat in Madison, a bipartisan legislative compromise-in an election year, no less.
The same release also says: “How a person campaigns says a lot about how they will behave if elected.” I agree with this, that’s why I think it is worth giving the central claims of the Fernandez campaign a thorough examination.
Cory Liebmann, Jay Bullock, and especially the One Wisconsin Now and their FiveMillionForFernandez project, have been doing great work along these lines (click on the links to get caught up). From their work it is clear that far from being an outsider, Fernandez is well connected to the right wing, anti-public education establishment, both nationally and in Wisconsin.
I’ve got a slightly different take and a few things to add.
I want to start with some information about the Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families (WCVSF) and related organization in other states. A review of IRS records makes it clear that the WCVSF is something other than a local grassroots group.
Liebmann recently posted on his efforts to obtain an IRS form 990 for the organization (all non profits are required to make these available). I’m not sure what year or years he was after or obtained, but I was able to find the 990s for 2005, 2006 and 2007 online.
There is no donor information, but there are some things of interest. First, no lobbying expenses are reported (and the Wisconsin Lobbying database for these years contains no entry for the WCVSF). As a 501 (c) organization there are limits on lobbying efforts and expenses (more so for 501 (c)(3), than a 501 (c)(4), but I’m not clear which 501 (c) version WCVSF is operating under, presumably a 501 (c)(4). There was lobbying activity in 2008, but I can’t find that 990. This lobbying is the topic of Part 2.
In fact, the vast majority of expenses are for “consulting,” with no further details about who was consulting, who were paid which legal fees, and little about the purposes for such expenses. In 2005, $56,327 of a total of $78, 003 in disbursements were for consulting; in 2006 it was $86,478 of $122,658. In 2007 there were $59,123 in legal fees, with $42, 140 paid for consulting out of $118,761 total expenses.
Interesting expenses and relatively strong fund raising considering how few virtual school families there were in the state (see here for the enrollments in various years)
In describing their “Statement of Purposes Accomplishments” for 2007, the WCVSF told the IRS:
Maintained a website to communicate with interested citizens regarding advancements and advantages of virtual education and distance learning opportunities. Conducted an ongoing media campaign. Provided interested parties with regular updates via email and the website.
All at a cost of $52,010. The same language appears in 2006 when the cost was $113,781, and the 2005 filing contained the additional word “built” and a cost of $70,558.
Here is where things get interesting. That same language appears on the 2007 Indiana Families for Virtual School IRS filing, as well as the 2005 and 2007 Florida Coalition of Virtual School Families forms (the 2006 is ever so slightly different), the 2005 Ohio Coalition of eSchool Families report, the 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 Arizona Coalition of Distance Learning Families 990s vary the language only slightly, the same can be said of the 2005, 2006, 2007 Arkansas Coalition of Distance Learning Families paperwork, the 2006 and 2007 Missourians for OnLine Education reports, and the 2006 and 2007 paperwork for Pennsylvania Families for Public CyberSchools filings.
One might suspect that these organizations are linked. One would almost certainly be correct.
One might also suspect that rather than being grassroots organizations, these are in fact AstroTurf front groups for companies seeking profits via taxpayer supported virtual schools or people wishing to undermine support for traditional public education. One would almost certainly be correct.
I took another look at the 990s for the various front groups and found more to report.
The accountant on all the 990s I checked — including the three from WCVSF — is one Joseph O’Brien of Non-profit Accounting Services of Scottsdale Arizona. The 990s for all I checked — including the three fromWCVSF — also list the organizational books being kept by “the Treasurer” at 2340 E. Beardsley Rd..Ste 100 Phoenix, Arizona. This, despite the fact that in the case ofWCVSF the treasurer is listed as a Robert Reber, with a Madison PO Box.
The address where the books are located is shared by “strategic public affairs and global issues management firm” the DCI Group. The DCI web page says they:
…use a campaign-style approach to help corporations, trade associations, and nonprofit organizations address their most critical communications and public policy challenges.
SourceWatch notes, ” The firm has been linked to several industry-funded coalitions that pose as grassroots organizations” and links them to Feather Larson & Synhorst DCI (who have been involved in Madison and Wisconsin school politics), doing PR for the repressive regime in Burma and much more, even garnering some extremely positive accolades from Karl Rove.
Clearly these are not local, independent parent groups, they are tools of corporate interests. Rose Fernandez is a tool of corporate interests.
About half of these organizations are registered via a masking proxy via “OneAndOne” web hosting out of Pennsylvania (as is the case with WCVSF).
Some other clues are even more interesting. They are registered by a Tim Vickey of Level 671. The charter advocacy organization, National Coalition for Public School Options also use his services and he has links to DCI/New Media, (now the Aderfo Group, an infamous right wing PR, lobbying and AstroTurf firm).
No direct links to Fernandez here, and some of this could be dismissed as circumstantial, but when combined with the reporting of Liebmann and One Wisconsin Now, it should be clear that the WCVSF families and the similar organizations in others states aren’t a bunch of underfunded parents stumbling against the powers that be. The parents may be sincere, but the expertise and direction is coming from some of the best in the business.
Thomas J. Mertz.