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GOP's hands are all over financial support for vouchers

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If you want to get properly schooled on who's driving Pennsylvania's voucher movement, you'd be wise to follow the money. 

The statewide push for school choice has earned supporters from both ends of the political spectrum, including state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D-Philadelphia), on the left, and Gov. Tom Corbett, on the right. But despite that, campaign-finance records show that the money behind legislators' enthusiastic praise of the movement is coming almost exclusively from the right.

"Financial support [for vouchers] does seem to be coming from conservatives," says G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. 

In Pennsylvania, the school-choice movement has received significant financial backing from Students First, a political-action committee created in March 2010. Designed to support legislative candidates dedicated to offering school choice, the group's chairman is Joe Watkins, a Republican political analyst and former aide to President George H.W. Bush. 

Students First is a partner of American Federation for Children. A national pro-voucher organization, the AFC is chaired by Betsy DeVos, former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, who, along with her husband, has given millions of dollars to conservative causes over the years. The Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation, for example, has contributed to such organizations as the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy and the Foundation for Traditional Values.

According to campaign finance reports, there were three primary contributors to Students First during the last election cycle: Jeffrey Yass, Joel Greenberg and Arthur Dantchik -- all employees of Susquehanna International Group, a financial-trading firm based outside of Philadelphia. Together, they provided Students First with more than $5 million in funding.

Yass, who gave the school-choice PAC nearly $1.6 million in 2010, is a board member of the Cato Institute, a conservative public-policy think tank funded in part by Pittsburgh Tribune-Review publisher Richard Mellon Scaife. Greenberg, a member of the AFC board of directors, kicked in more than $1.9 million in 2010 and 2011. Dantchik, who gave nearly $1.5 million, is a board member of the Institute for Justice, a self-described "libertarian public-interest law firm," also funded by Scaife.

Students First spent more than $5.7 million in the last election cycle, most of which went to Williams, whose failed Democratic primary bid for governor was almost entirely bankrolled by $5 million from the group. Williams aside, most pro-voucher donations went to Republicans, including Senate President Joseph Scarnati (R-Jefferson) and Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware), each of whom received $100,000. 

But Democrats do occasionally receive pro-voucher largesse. State Rep. Jake Wheatley (D-Pittsburgh), for instance, accepted $10,000. 

Wheatley, like Williams, is an African-American, and both have constituencies whose children attend schools in low-income communities. An April 2010 article in the Philadelphia Tribune said the voucher issue has "created a rift among the Democrats of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus.

The money injected into campaigns from just a handful of people "is definitely a concern," says Tim Potts, president of Democracy Rising Pennsylvania. 

But Joe Watkins, chairman of Students First, says too much is being read into political affiliations connected to the voucher movement. 

"The beauty of Students First is that it's bigger than parties and politics," says Watkins. "It's not about Democrats or Republicans.

"There's no secret about my background -- I've worked with a Republican president," he adds. "But I'm standing side by side with Democrats and Republicans" in the fight for school vouchers. 

State Sen. Jay Costa (D-Pittsburgh), an opponent of school vouchers, says some Democrats and Republicans have gotten behind the school-choice movement for various reasons, but it's clear that the "principal [players] driving it" are conservatives, and that partisan politics are involved. "A colleague ... calls it a 'right-wing conspiracy,'" he says. 

Wheatley says he's an advocate for school choice, but cautions that he's not going to support just any voucher bill. For instance, he says there are flaws in the proposed voucher bill. And unlike some of his GOP colleagues in Harrisburg, he says his intention is not to destroy the public-education system.

As for the contribution he received from the Students First, Wheatley is quick to defend his acceptance of the campaign donation.

"There are people on the right side of issues and the left side who have given to me," he says. "They're not controlling my brain or my thoughts on education."

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