WHOSE CHOICE? / Fourth in a four-part series



Published Wednesday, December 15, 1999



 



School battle eludes voters, takes its cues from coalitions



Powerful organizations turn education into war of words, litigation and money



 



By Doug Oplinger and Dennis J. Willard



Beacon Journal staff writers



 



   It's 5:45 p.m. on a weeknight -- drive time in Northeast Ohio.

    There is a pause on WCRF radio in preparation for a short, tape-recorded commentary on public schools. Then a male voice asks, "Is it about teaching kids well? Or about power, . . . money . . . and politics? Hi. This is Dave Zanotti."

    For the next few minutes, the Ohio Roundtable's president takes aim at the largest teachers union in the country and pulls the trigger. The National Education Association, he insists, opposes prayer in the classroom and school choice but favors "sex ed, suicide ed, AIDS ed, self-esteem ed, Goals 2000, increased sensitivity, and acceptance of gays and lesbians and school-based clinics."

    He was hunting big game, and he was doing it with one of the largest radio-listening audiences in the state. Powerful organizations have taken what Americans identify as the No. 1 issue -- education of children -- and are turning it into a war of words, litigation and money.

    They are filling a void left by 75 percent of Ohio's voting-age population who don't go to polls in off-year elections to vote on school board candidates and school levies.

    Who are these organizations in Ohio, and, more important, what impact are they having?

    "The public school system, as we have known it, may not survive the next century," said David Matthews, president of the Kettering Foundation, which researches public participation in democracy. Kettering, based in Dayton, recently completed a national study of the public role in education issues. "There are evidently a great many people who don't believe that the public schools are their agents. . . . "

    There are some, he said, that "are creating their own schools, trying to take back the schools, or putting someone in charge who will make schools respond to their priorities."

    The rhetoric that rises from both sides of the school-choice fight pushes the public farther away, said Kettering researcher Richard Nielson. Too often, he said, the solutions pushed by politicians and special interests bear no resemblance to what citizens think are real problems or solutions. So the people see themselves as having no role in the debate, he said.

    "To make democracy work well, citizens have to see themselves as actors," Nielson said. "People don't see themselves in (the schools). They don't feel they have any role in that conversation."

    Filling the void are vastly diverse groups of the religious right, libertarians, college professors, wealthy business executives and conservative politicians.

    And by using news reporters who thrive on catchy phrases, they have turned the tables on liberals and public-school advocates.

    Zanotti, who declined to be interviewed by the Akron Beacon Journal for this story, has been especially adept at organizing rallies and speaking in sound bites for radio and television.

    His radio commentary is aired on WCRF, a Moody Bible Institute affiliate, and other religious stations that make him an influential voice across the state. He operates an Internet site where he comments on the NEA, American Civil Liberties Union, education and judges who he says are out of control.

    With an annual budget of $500,000, he has pushed an agenda and chipped away at the credibility of public education groups like the NEA, whose budget is 300 times larger.

    There is much at stake. The opposing forces are vying for control of $12 billion in federal, state and local taxes and the minds of 2 million Ohio schoolchildren.

    Some of the organizations and leaders in Ohio include:

    + Zanotti's Ohio Roundtable, School Choice Committee, Freedom Forum and Public Square radio spot.

    + The Buckeye Institute, based in Columbus, which supports dramatic reduction in the role of government.

    + The Ashbrook Center, a conservative nonprofit education program at Ashland University.

    + The NEA and its Ohio affiliate and the American Federation of Teachers.

    + And liberal organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

    Names and labels

    Here are some of the most prominent advocates in Ohio and the words they use to describe themselves and others.

    School-choice advocates identify their opposition -- the defenders of public education -- as some of the most well-funded liberal organizations in the United States. Those include the NEA, the AFT, the ACLU, People for the American Way and Americans for the Separation of Church and State.

    The opposition is not imagined: Each of those groups is party to a suit charging that the Cleveland voucher program aids religious institutions, violating the U.S. Constitution.

    Their media-relations officers moved into high gear each time there was a development in the voucher case. They called reporters to offer comment and issue prepared statements.

    The ACLU is most known for its opposition to prayer in schools and its support of free speech, even if it means defending radical groups and making it easy prey for evangelical Christians such as Zanotti. The ACLU contends school choice is a program for the privileged.

    Voucher programs offer only the illusion of choice for the vast majority of public-school students who will remain in underfunded public schools while a select few will get their school, said Terri Schroeder, legislative representative for the ACLU.

    "Fundamental fairness demands we improve our public schools for every child instead of targeting a few for special privileges," she said.

    The NEA, meanwhile, has a vested interest in protecting its membership of 2.4 million public-school teachers and administrators. With some of the highest union dues in the country, the NEA and its state affiliates can play a heavy hand in political campaigns.

    The NEA's Ohio affiliate, the 123,000-member Ohio Education Association, is also a power broker. Its campaign contributions and endorsements nearly caused a revolt last year when the union endorsed Republican Gov. George Voinovich in his race for U.S. Senate. Voinovich has been a powerful advocate of school choice and opponent of major reform in public-school funding.

    That wasn't the first time union leaders took a position that didn't sit well with members.

    The union has been a financial supporter of Republicans in control of key committees -- the same lawmakers who have been highly critical of public-school teachers.

    While the OEA is now taking a strong stand against charter schools, the union was its own worst enemy in 1996.

    OEA leaders wanted to continue their control of the State Teachers Retirement System's $48 billion in stocks, bonds and real estate. To get it, they gave the Ohio Senate Republican Campaign Committee $150,000 and went as far as supporting an early but much different form of charter-school legislation.

    The OEA now is part of the Coalition for Public Education, which was formed this year to oppose charter-school laws in Ohio. The coalition includes 23 organizations representing teachers, administrators, the Akron NAACP, People for the American Way, the Jewish Labor Committee and the Ohio ACLU.

    They held a rally Oct. 23 in Columbus to support public schools and take shots at charter schools and the state's voucher program in Cleveland. Attack is launched

    Akron entrepreneur David Brennan -- Ohio's largest operator of a publicly funded, for-profit school business -- said in a 1992 interview with the Catholic Universe Bulletin newspaper that unions were a powerful force to contend with.

    "We need to develop business groups that can match them dollar for dollar and fight them punch for punch," he said.

    That has happened in Ohio in the last few years, with two camps emerging among school-choice advocates. One is an organization of independent charter-school operators backed financially by the Ohio Business Roundtable and Cleveland Foundation. The other is a loosely knit, influential group that rallies around Brennan.

    The Ohio Community Schools Center, consisting of many small-time charter school operators, has gone from nonexistent two years ago to an influential lobbying organization.

    OCSC, through board member Chester E. Finn Jr., is connected with the school-choice-oriented Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Dayton and the Manhattan Institute in New York. Manhattan is a Libertarian-leaning organization that supports the privatization of government services.

    While charter schools were sold as a way to help improve education, Finn and other OCSC participants aggressively attacked public schools.

    Messages on their Internet list server show that many of them have little understanding of public-school finance but are determined to open their own schools with public money, demand services from the public schools and often employ themselves as the chief executives.

    This autumn's refusal by Akron schools to transport charter-school students united the group. Akron said it simply did not have the capacity to add complex bus routes for charter-school children.

    But the OCSC was successful in persuading the Department of Education to advocate for privately operated charter schools, at least temporarily forcing Akron to spend more transporting charter-school children than it spends on public-school children. Hearings on busing are to be held in Akron this week.

    State Rep. Sally Perz, R-Toledo, was the original author of Ohio's charter-school laws. Her daughter, Allison, is marketing herself as a charter-school consultant. Clint Satow, Perz's former chief of staff, is now the lobbyist for the OCSC.

    Allison Perz has encouraged charter-school operators to actively oppose local school levies, saying such levies do not benefit charter schools -- even though the public schools are losing money to charters.

    Allison Perz also urged the defeat of Issue 1, which was approved by voters in November and allows the sale of general obligation bonds to fix Ohios public-school buildings -- which have been rated worst in the nation.

    She said unless Issue 1 helped charter schools, it should be opposed by OCSC members.

    She has used the OCSC Internet bulletin board to offer her consulting services. She said she knows how to apply for federal drug-free grant money to pay for yearlong teacher training programs by "carefully inserting specific topics" into the program and using "specific wording on the invoices."

    Calls to Allison Perz were not returned.

    Satow is the OCSC's lobbyist and monitors the Internet communications. In early November he gathered information on a union-sponsored, anti-charter school rally in Columbus and told OCSC members in an electronic message that it's "good to know who your enemies are.. . . I wonder why they feel so threatened. I would argue that they know the community schools are going to eventually break their monopoly on public education. . . ." Brennan's alliance

    The larger, more powerful school-choice advocacy group is loosely aligned with Brennan, a player in the national school-choice movement.

    He has established a for-profit education management company that operates 11 charter schools. Brennan plans to nearly triple his schools next year, making his education management company one of the nation's largest.

    Even though national elections aren't until next year, Brennan already has given at least $8,000 to conservative national Republican candidates and another $25,000 to the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Last year he gave $1,000 to U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who pledged to abolish public education.

    Like Zanotti, Brennan has used emotion-packed words to criticize what he calls the "government schools."

    In a 1992 Catholic Universe Bulletin article, Brennan said children "are being made to go to schools that give out condoms. It is the most distasteful, anti-American position that we are imparting to kids attitudes and values that are totally repugnant to their parents. How did we ever get to this point?"

    He called the people who run the schools "educrats" and stopped just short of calling them communists. "We have a system that would be the envy of Soviet Russia. Total centralization; total conformity."

    In a 1997 paper published by the conservative Ashbrook education center at Ashland University, he said: "Our children remain trapped in a state-controlled education system that members of the former (Communist) Politburo would still admire."

    Brennan contributed to the Ashbrook school-choice series of articles published in late 1997. Others included Zanotti, Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, state school board member Charles Byrne, Ashbrook President Peter Schramm and several key lawmakers.

    Five months after the publication, the Brennan Family Foundation gave a $25,000 tax-deductible donation to Ashbrook. In the two previous years, Brennan Family Foundation donations totaled $17,500, according to federal records.

    "I have no problem with people making money. You can do many, many good things making money," Ashbrook president Schramm said of Brennan. "I'm sort of prejudiced in favor of people who want to invigorate . . . and make things better.

    "I think highly of what he is doing. I've been up there (to his schools). That's how I got to know the guy," he said. "The public school system is sort of ossified. Sometimes competition may help." Another ally

    Also allied with Brennan is the Buckeye Institute of Columbus, which organizes well-attended news conferences for reporters from Ohios major daily newspapers. Sometimes, the institute releases research conclusions that are dead wrong.

    Buckeye is part of a national network of free-market organizations that favor cutting taxes, eliminating most of government and allowing free enterprise to solve society's problems. The institute has assembled a long list of Ohio professors and corporate economists -- some of them Libertarian Party activists who write free-market articles for the institute.

    Most of Buckeye's articles of the last two years have supported school choice and opposed any more money for public schools. And Buckeye shows no love for voters.

    In a 1998 retrospective on Ohios voucher program, Buckeye said proponents of Cleveland's voucher program "remembered a crucial principal: the legislative process is preferable to direct, mass media democracy."

    In other words, Buckeye said that if school choice were submitted to voters, it would lose, as it has in several states. The best approach is to win control of the legislature.

    One of the authors of that report was a recent addition to Buckeye, James Damask, former budget director for the Summit County Board of Elections.

    While a student at the University of Akron in 1989, he started a conservative newspaper. The first edition carried a cover story about communism and totalitarianism and used a swastika and picture of Adolf Hitler for illustrations.

    He started the newspaper after a dispute with the official student newspaper, the Buchtelite. The university paper published an article revealing that Damask, who was running for student government president, had as his running mate a person who had been charged with making a bomb threat.

    Now, Damask is on staff conducting research and writing articles for Buckeye.

    Only a few weeks before Ohioans voted on a $1 billion sales-tax increase for schools, Damask wrote that there was $800 million in waste in public schools. He said rather than raise taxes, education costs could be cut by allowing business to take over operations and by offering school choice.

    According to Buckeye's July Internet posting, it has 43 contributing authors who also serve as policy advisers. Three are women, including Deborah Owens Fink, a University of Akron instructor who recently was appointed by Gov. Bob Taft to a vacant position on the State Board of Education. Brennan money

    While Buckeye bills itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and education organization, it has released a number of articles that have declared Brennan's Hope Schools and the Cleveland voucher program a success.

    And like Ashbrook, a trail of Brennan Family Foundation money leads to Buckeye.

    In 1998, as Buckeye was producing some of its most glowing endorsements of Brennan's schools, the family foundation gave it $22,500. The previous donation of $10,000 was in 1996, according to federal tax records.

    "David is very forward-looking about these matters. He's a good man," said Richard Leonardi, president.

    "The profit motive is what made this country great," he said. He supports school choice because "individuals and families make better decisions. We (Buckeye) favor a free economy, individual rights and limited government."

    The NEA says Buckeye is part of a national network of conservative think tanks that are registered as charitable organizations but leading a "state-based assault" on public education. They are unable to compete on a national level, so they are dividing and conquering one state at a time, NEA says.

    Leonardi said he is not concerned "if the NEA wants to put us in their sights." He suggested that all they want to do is "sling some mud. We tend not to support coercive institutions. Many unions take on that characteristic by lobbying government repeatedly and extensively."

    However, Buckeye's research record is not stellar -- yet it is often quoted.

    When vouchers began in late 1996, there were disagreements as to whether the Catholic Church would be making money on the program. Buckeye produced a study that attempted to prove that the church would lose money on each child while the state would save money.

    Buckeye said the Catholic schools received on average $1,145 per student in voucher money, but the cost of educating a child was $1,849. Therefore, the Catholic schools were losing on average $577 for each voucher student.

    However, the study failed to include $600 in other forms of state aid and $128 in tuition from the parents. That gave the Catholic schools a profit of about $151 per child -- that is, if Buckeye's cost numbers were correct.

    Buckeye's analysis found its way into the Columbus Dispatch newspaper, was transmitted by the Associated Press news service and published by other Ohio papers, including the Akron Beacon Journal.

    A recent Buckeye article on vouchers said the program did not harm Cleveland city schools because lawmakers had guaranteed that the public district would get more money as children switched to the voucher program.

    Buckeye was wrong. Although that was an initial promise, the state changed the rules nearly two years ago and Cleveland is losing money. Looking for answers

    If Ohioans are looking for straight answers on education, they'll have a hard time finding them.

    Newspapers have fallen into the same sound-bite mentality as television, frequently attending Zanotti press conferences and then asking the opposing side for comment.

    "Its easier to write that story," said Nielson, the researcher at the Kettering Foundation.

    While he wouldn't comment specifically on how the school-choice debate affects voters, it is clear that the opposing sides are more adept at creating enemies than they are at identifying common ground.

    As community schools lobbyist Satow said on the Internet a few weeks ago, public-school officials and teachers unions are "the enemy."

    The problem today is not how to fix education, Nielson said, it's how to get people to care. Even if proficiency test scores go up, it won't make any difference if there has been no community decision that scores must go up.

    "Public schools historically have been one of the central, most important institutions in the development of communities," Nielson said.

    There is much at stake. That is because public education and democracy are inseparable, said Robert Wehling, a senior vice president of Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati.

    "It is implicit, it is fundamental -- they go hand in hand," he said.

    In the mid-1990s, he practiced what the Kettering Foundation supports -- methodical, constant dialogue to identify goals for public education and find workable solutions. His organization, called BEST, was a coalition of the state's largest organizations of business executives, educators and community leaders who had very different ideas about what needed to be done.

    They took more than three years to form a plan for fixing schools, and nowhere in it was there mention of school choice.

    So Buckeye and Zanotti attacked the group's solutions with press releases, letters and radio spots -- and within a year the state's only coalition of many interest groups had disappeared as a player.



 



Doug Oplinger can be reached at doplinger@thebeaconjournal.com



WHOSE CHOICE? / Fourth in a four-part series



Published Wednesday, December 15, 1999



 



Campaign organizer pushes hard for changes


David Zanotti exercises influence over officials while leading the attack on public school system



 



 



By Doug Oplinger and Dennis J. Willard



Beacon Journal staff writers



 



   During much of the 1990s, David Zanotti has been an important campaign organizer and grass-roots activist for former Gov. George Voinovich and Akron entrepreneur David Brennan.

    In doing so, he brought about changes in election and campaign-finance laws and twice led campaigns to block the introduction of casino gambling.

    He also has attacked public schools, teachers unions and outcome-based education.

    His lead organization is the 19-year-old Ohio Roundtable, a charitable nonprofit group that he describes as a nonpartisan education and research organization dedicated to restoring traditional Judeo-Christian principles to public policy.

    On at least one occasion, he offered in his radio broadcast -- which can be heard on about 20 Ohio stations -- to act as an intermediary for parents and teachers who were interested in applying to Brennans Hope schools.

    In 1997, he received a $10,000 contribution from the Brennan Family Foundation, according to federal records.

    Campaign records show Brennan's relationship with Zanotti dates to at least 1992, when Zanotti launched a successful statewide referendum that created term limits in the state legislature. Brennan contributed $5,000 to Zanotti's Ohioans for Term Limits campaign, which helped push through a state law that has forced one-third of the General Assembly to leave office in the last three years.

    There are two other Zanotti organizations: Freedom Forum, which in 1997 was registered as an Ohio lobbying entity, and The Liberty Committee, a political action committee.

    Zanotti, through spokeswoman Patricia Hollo, originally declined to be interviewed on the record by the Beacon Journal. Two weeks ago, Hollo said Zanotti would be willing to talk, but then did not return two phone calls to establish a time. Affinity for chief justice#3 In the 1997-98 election cycle, Zanotti's PAC moved $10,550 from individual contributors to nine Republicans. The biggest recipients were Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell at $2,500 and Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, $1,550.

    When the court ruled in 1997 that Ohio public schools were inadequately funded, Moyer was among the minority that disagreed. Zanotti was so supportive of Moyer that he reprinted the chief justice's minority opinion in a booklet called "Dissenting" and delivered copies across the state.

    Zanotti said the court overstepped its constitutional responsibilities and was in effect ordering a massive tax increase. After the ruling, he aggressively campaigned for a constitutional amendment that would strip the courts of jurisdiction over public-school funding -- and faxed 2,000 updates on the school-funding case, sometimes several times a week, to his supporters.

    "We have a profound case of mad-judge disease here in Ohio," he said in a 1997 interview for the Conservative Spotlight, a feature in Human Events magazine.

    In a letter to Gov. George Voinovich, Zanotti said: "George, I will say it plainly. If we do not stand against a judiciary attempting to rewrite our Constitution here and now -- where will we stand? The Court has handed you and me as citizens a terrible decision. Have we no redress? Must we simply comply like those condemned to tyranny in totalitarian nations?" Letters to Voinovich

    Zanotti has had tremendous effect on Ohio government.

    Records show he attended meetings with Brennan, lawmakers, the governor's office and representatives of Attorney General Betty Montgomery in 1997 to discuss how the state would defend vouchers in court and whether the program needed legislative changes.

    And he was on a first-name basis with the governor. Phone records from the governor's office show that Voinovich and his aides had many conversations with Zanotti at home, at his office and on his car phone.

    In May 1997, as Voinovich's education task force tried to devise a funding plan to answer the Ohio Supreme Court, Zanotti chided the governor for bowing to the court.

    "We have seen support continue to grow for a constitutional amendment to correct the misguided activism of the Supreme Court's DeRolph decision," Zanotti said in a letter identified as from the Ohio Roundtable and Freedom Forum.

    "George, we are trying to wait patiently on the task force process. In spite of the great volumes of rhetoric, the issues remain quite clear: The professional education bureaucracy wants a judicial avenue to endlessly increased funding. They will hear nothing of accountability. They hold the notion in contempt."

    Voinovich responded by saying he "would appreciate (Zanotti's) counsel as we move toward a performance-driven, results-oriented system. . . ."

    In a personally written note at the bottom of the letter, the governor said: "Call me one of these days. We need to build an understanding with the public that the legislature is the place for solution to school situation."

    A month later, after what Zanotti called lengthy conversations with Voinovichs chief of staff Curt Steiner, he said he was worried Voinovich was about to give up on a constitutional fight.

    ". . . I am quite concerned. It appears there is a real danger of surrendering the school funding debate to Bill Phillis (executive director of the coalition of schools that won the ruling) and his friends on the Supreme Court."

    He added: "The professional educational bureaucracy cares little if they gain one million or one billion dollars from this current crisis. Their real objective is to secure a direct path to more funding that bypasses you, the Ohio Legislature and the voters."

    He ended with, "I realize that we (the Ohio Roundtable) are not a large enough organization to counter the millions the OEA/AFSCME/AFL-CIO will spend on this issue. But when have the odds ever been fair when it comes to doing the right thing? And when has appeasing a bully ever worked? We offer you our full support on resolving this issue based on just principles."

    The Ohio Business Roundtable -- a separate organization -- in 1997 delivered a long-researched report on fixing public schools and gave only cautious endorsement to school choice.

    Zanotti responded with a letter to business leaders telling them their solutions were extremely troubling.

    A copy of a letter to Timken Co. chief executive W.R. "Tim" Timken, found in the Voinovich archives at Ohio University, stated: "The education system in Ohio is not an enterprise as the (Business Roundtable's) briefing intimates. It is, in fact, a well established, state sponsored monopoly. The balance of power in that monopoly is controlled by the education bureaucracy and has been for the past 20 years.. . . The fuel for this debate is money and the goal is control. The children come last in this equation. Education is only the bi-product (sic) of the struggle."

    In late 1997, there was speculation that Voinovich was preparing to respond to an Ohio Supreme Court ruling on school funding by resurrecting a plan for higher taxes for public schools. "I have lost count of the people who ask me over and over again, 'How can Governor Voinovich be doing this?' " Zanotti wrote. "Sadly, George, I must shake my head and simply state that I just don't know. . . "

    "At day's end the Court will get their way, Bill Phillis will walk away a hero, the Democrats will claim total victory, and business owners, taxpayers and families of Ohio will feel that they got run over by two freight trains," Zanotti said.

    "The last thing they will see on the caboose of that train is your name on a campaign poster for the U.S. Senate race in 1998."



 



Doug Oplinger can be reached at doplinger@thebeaconjournal.com