It’s not just Koch brother money funding the anti-union, pro-privatization takeover of school boards. In Colorado, mainstream community foundations are in on the game too.
Take the Daniels Fund, a Denver foundation known for giving grants to support ethics education, scholarships, alcoholism treatment and palliative care. Those community oriented, non-partisan projects sharply contrast the political nature of the foundation’s recent funding initiatives: paying the legal fees for two conservative-majority school boards that are being sued for using taxpayer money for private school vouchers, and busting teachers’ unions.
The two school boards, Douglas County and the Loveland-based Thompson School District, both got their outside attorneys’ fees paid for, not by the taxpayers, but from the Daniels Fund. Two other well-known foundations, the El Pomar Foundation in Colorado Springs, and the Walton Family Foundation (think Wal-Mart), also have kicked in big bucks to the Douglas County school district to help cover legal expenses.
According to documents obtained by The Colorado Independent, Douglas County received $870,000 over the last four years from the Daniels Fund to pay legal expenses for a lawsuit challenging its voucher program, known as the Choice Scholarship Pilot Program. The El Pomar Foundation kicked in $25,000 in 2011, and the Walton Family Foundation put in $300,000 in 2012.
The Douglas County Board of Education started its Choice Scholarship Pilot Program in 2011. The purpose was to provide taxpayer-funded vouchers to K-12 students who could then take those vouchers and pay for education at any private institution, including religious schools.
Taxpayers for Public Education sued the district, claiming the vouchers were unconstitutional, and in June, the Colorado Supreme Court agreed.
In early September, the district appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court; two weeks later, the Daniels Fund kicked in another $500,000 for legal expenses,
The Daniels Fund gives grants to organizations working on “K-12 education reform,” including “school choice,” a euphemism for funneling public dollars into private-school vouchers and privately-run charter schools.
It’s not quite as easy to see where helping the Thompson school board get rid of its teachers’ union fits into the Daniels mission. But it’s a perfect fit for the mission of those gunning to privatize public education.
The Thompson Board of Education got a $150,000 grant from the Daniels Fund in August, a grant solicited by Brad Miller, the board’s lawyer, who is also a private attorney working for the embattled Jefferson County school board.
Miller obtained the grant without first seeking board authority, but the board majority approved the grant when he informed them of it.
The Thompson board is being sued by its teachers’ union, the Thompson Education Association, over its refusal to negotiate in good faith a contract for 2015-16. According to an independent arbitrator who came in after negotiations failed, the conservative majority board never intended to agree to a new contract, preferring instead to take away the union’s ability to negotiate on behalf of Thompson district teachers.
According to a statement from Daniels President and CEO Linda Childears, the grant is tied to the Daniels mission because, “We believe that in order to increase the likelihood of academic success for all children, it is necessary to continuously improve the K-12 system. The Fund believes in a School Board’s right to make autonomous decisions for their school district.”
Childears said the union “is seeking to bind the district to a contract that the Thompson School Board does not agree to.” The Fund paid for the legal fees to “defend the right of the board to enter into or not enter into contracts of their choosing.” She added that the Fund does not weigh in on the content or scope of the contract, “only on the right of locally elected School Boards to make decisions they were elected to make.”
Childears is a former board member of the Alliance for Choice in Education, a private foundation started by oilman Alex Cranberg to fund scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools. The Daniels Fund also gives money to the Alliance according to the Fund’s website.
The Alliance has ties to other conservative donors who want to help privatize public education, like Ed McVaney, retired CEO of JD Edwards; and Ralph Nagel, who owns a chain of assisted-living centers in Colorado. Both are trustees for the Alliance. Both kicked in tens of thousands of dollars in 2013 to help elect the conservative majority for the Thompson Board of Education and to keep the conservative majority at the Douglas County Board of Education.
Kristen Todd, senior vice-president for grants at Daniels, came to the Fund from the El Pomar Foundation, where she was associate vice president for grantmaking and communication. She also is a former trustee for the Foundation, which also provides grants to the Alliance for Choice in Education.
The Daniels Fund was started by the late cable magnate Bill Daniels in 1997. When Daniels passed away in 2000, the fund was led by former Daniels and Associate Executive Vice President Bill Hogue.
The Fund was initially viewed as somewhat liberal, funding research into homelessness, and denying grants to organizations such as the Boy Scouts because of their then-anti-gay stance, according to a 2013 report by the right-wing newsletter Foundation Watch.
In 2003, former CU President and U.S. Senator Hank Brown, R-Colo., took the helm. Shortly thereafter the foundation laid off its “liberal program officers” and according to the Foundation Watch article, returned to its “true donor intent.”
Today, part of the nine-member board reads like a “Who’s Who” of Republican politicians; in addition to Brown and Childears, the board includes Colorado Springs Mayor and former Attorney General John Suthers; Jim Nicholson, former Secretary of Veterans Affairs under President George Bush and a former chair of the Republican Party; and Brian Deevy, former CEO of Daniels and Associates and a big-money donor to Republican causes and candidates.
Daniels himself was no liberal; he was a lifelong Republican who gave to Republican candidates and was a Republican nominee for governor of Colorado in 1974. Many of the causes supported by the Daniels Fund reflect his personal interests: aging issues inspired by his experience with his aging mother, and alcoholism treatment inspired by his experience as a recovered alcoholic.
K-12 education reform, with an emphasis on so-called “school choice,” under which the Fund provided the legal fees for Thompson and Douglas County, is one of the largest grant areas for the foundation. In 2014, about 10 percent of the $47.7 million in grants went to K-12 education reform.
In its 2014 filing with the IRS, the Fund reported more than $1.3 billion in assets, mostly in investments. It relied 100 percent on the money provided by the Daniels estate. According to Debbie Pierce, vice president for media and community relations, the fund does not accept outside donations.
But none of the annual reports from 2011 through 2014 mentioned paying for legal fees for the Douglas County school district.
The El Pomar Foundation reported assets of $573 million in its 2014 annual report. The Foundation, which was started with the proceeds of the estate of Spencer and Julie Penrose, also does not take in donations.
El Pomar Foundation Spokeswoman Lori Bellingham told The Independent that the grant to Douglas County reflects the Foundation’s interest in educational opportunity. One of the Foundation’s programs, the El Pomar Youth in Community Service, has for 15 years provided grants in leadership opportunities to about 140 alternative, public, private and charter schools in Colorado. In addition, the Foundation recently gave $750,000 to a charter school, Atlas Prep in Colorado Springs.
Additional reporting by Jane Hoback.