Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ 2016 campaign received more than $370,000 from some of the top proponents of school-choice ballot measures and legislation in the country — including Betsy DeVos, the newly confirmed education secretary.
Campaign contribution data from the top school-choice funders were collected by the nonprofit National Institute on Money in State Politics and prepared by The Associated Press. The AP found that a small group of wealthy contributors collectively play a big role in political funding to support charter school laws, and they are also major contributors to officeholders and candidates.
Data show 48 individuals or married couples donated at least $100,000 each from 2000 to 2016 to support statewide ballot measures advocating for the creation or expansion of charter schools or taxpayer-funded scholarships that can be used for private school tuition. Those families donated a total of nearly $225 million from 2007 through last year, and the biggest portion of their contributions went to candidates, parties and general ideological political action committees.
Greitens’ office did not respond to requests for comment.
According to the data of top school-choice proponent donations in 2016, Greitens received:
▪ $40,000 from Betsy and Richard DeVos.
▪ $55,301 from venture capitalist William Draper III.
▪ $275,000 from Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus.
The data show the $275,000 Greitens received from Marcus was the second-largest donation to any individual candidate from top school-choice supporters in 2016.
The largest individual candidate donation went to Jonathan Johnson, a 2016 Utah Republican gubernatorial candidate and board chairman of Overstock.com. Johnson received $600,000 from Patrick Byrne, Overstock.com’s CEO.
The data also show that U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri — who voted to confirm DeVos as education secretary — had campaign donations totaling $32,950 from the major school-choice contributors, with nearly $11,000 of that from the DeVos family.
Like other states across the country, the Missouri General Assembly has debated education savings accounts, virtual schools and charter school expansions, which are generally supported by school-choice advocates.
Hopes were high for school choice advocates coming into the 2017 Missouri legislative session. Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat who had vowed to veto any bill that directed public money to private schools, was replaced by Republican Greitens, who was outspoken in his support for school choice during the campaign.
Greitens even mentioned in his first State of the State address the creation of education savings accounts, where debit cards are issued to parents with a certain amount of funding loaded onto the card. The parents could then pay tuition to a private or virtual school, buy textbooks, hire tutors or pay for any number of things approved by the state. Critics say these accounts are basically just vouchers, an idea that historically has run into fierce resistance in the legislature from both parties.
The concern among many is that unlike public schools, private schools don’t have to accept every student and aren’t accountable to the state in ways that would ensure children are receiving a high-quality education and that funds are being used appropriately. School choice critics say the measures would lead to a dismantling of the already underfunded public education system when more wealthy students flee public schools and leave the children left behind with even less funding than before.
But education is rarely a partisan issue, and despite Republicans holding two-thirds of the seats in the legislature, Greitens’ education agenda fizzled: Bills expanding where charter schools could operate and implementing virtual schools had momentum early in the session but never came close to getting to the governor’s desk. A wide-ranging bill that created tuition tax credits to attend private schools cleared the Senate but never made it to the full House for debate.
So why couldn’t a Republican-controlled legislature with a Republican governor pass any school-choice-related bills this year?
It just wasn’t as high on the legislators’ priority list as other issues, said Michael McShane, director of education policy at the Show Me Institute, a free market think tank that supports school-choice measures.
“This was only the second time in 25 years that there’s been a Republican governor and Republican House and Senate, so there was a lot of stuff they wanted to get done,” he said.
“If you have an issue area that necessarily wasn’t at the top of the priority list, a body that’s moving slowly, and only a five month session, stuff’s not going to get done — and that’s what happened in education this year.”
But don’t expect school-choice issues to go away, said Sen. Jason Holsman, a Democrat who represents southwest Kansas City and is on the Senate Education Committee and the Joint Committee on Education. Holsman said he expects the bill sponsors will re-introduce similar legislation.