Officials of the Libre Initiative are quick to hide their connection to the right-wing billionaire Koch brothers.
Dawn Penich-Thacker, a professor of rhetoric and writing at Arizona State University and a public school supporter, witnessed it twice when sharing the stage with Carlos Alfaro.
The first time, they were discussing education on a talk show when Alfaro objected to being linked to the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity. He asked to be introduced as a representative of the Libre Initiative instead. Then, at a panel discussion, Alfaro “took a magic marker and crossed out Americans for Prosperity and wrote in Libre” on his ID badge, Penich-Thacker recalled.
David and Charles Koch’s Americans for Prosperity promotes privatization, charter schools, vouchers and free markets. But the Libre Initiative is theirs as well, the latest effort to build support for their ideas and influence policy, this time by targeting Latino families. Besides Arizona, Libre is organizing in Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.
Libre’s website and Twitter activity echo all things Koch, championing “free markets,” deriding the Affordable Care Act and urging the government not to “bail out” health insurance companies. The group supports the Trump education budget that would pour millions of dollars into vouchers at the expense of public schools.
Libre also provides services to the community: a place to get information about driver’s licenses, starting a business or filling out Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) applications. “I don’t agree with them, but I can’t fault them for doing what Democrats should be doing in battleground states,” said Alberto Morales, the senior political director of Latino Decisions, which specializes in polling the Latino community. “It takes millions of dollars to do what Libre is doing.”
Arizona is prime territory for Libre because of the battle there over the recent expansion of the state’s school voucher program. The state began offering vouchers in 2011, but only for students with disabilities or those attending low-performing schools. But this year, Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law a bill that allows all students in the state to apply for vouchers, a move that Libre strongly supports.
Supporters of public education were outraged. Penich-Thacker joined others — under the name Save Our Schools Arizona — to collect petition signatures to force a referendum on whether the law should stand. The group delivered 100,000 signatures, 25,000 more than required.
“That’s why the dark money is here,” Penich-Thacker said.
Americans for Prosperity and others don’t want voters to have a say in whether or not the voucher law can stand, so they have brought a lawsuit aimed at keeping the voucher referendum off the 2018 ballot.
Arizona teachers say they’ve already seen the damage done to public schools by state budget cuts, and the voucher program expansion would make a bad situation worse by siphoning off more funds.
“It’s horrific,” said Beth Lewis, a 5th-grade teacher in a Phoenix suburb and a founder of Save Our Schools Arizona. “I can see the downward spiral, and I’ve been teaching less than 10 years.”
Lewis said her classroom is overflowing with 32 students while a colleague has 29 students in a kindergarten class. “It’s unconscionable,” she said.
Her school has a part-time librarian, one music teacher who is shared with five other schools, and no art classes, just like the rest of the district.
“They’re trying to break the school system, as they did in Kansas,” said Ralph Quintana, the president of the American Federation of Teachers Arizona and a 17-year classroom veteran. “Our Koch-backed governor threatened moderate Republicans” with being challenged in the primaries “so they would vote for the universal vouchers, even if it hurt their own communities.”
Christina Marsh, a 26-year teaching veteran from Scottsdale and Arizona’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, was one of five Teachers of the Year who met with Gov. Ducey in April to express their feeling of “betrayal” over his voucher law. That law contributed to Marsh’s decision to run for the state Senate in 2018.
Now she has become the target of a group backed by right-wing billionaires. And the dark money has found her, too. “The American Federation for Children has already put out robocalls against me,” Marsh said.
Sound familiar? That group was bankrolled and chaired by Betsy DeVos before she became U.S. education secretary.