Koch’s nonprofit gets involved in Arizona’s voucher debate

A screen grab from a new commercial about school vouchers that the conservative Koch Brothers are backing financially and only being shown in Arizona. The state’s voters are scheduled to vote on the Legislature expanding vouchers during the last session.

Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

A screen grab from a new commercial about school vouchers that the conservative Koch Brothers are backing financially and only being shown in Arizona. The state’s voters are scheduled to vote on the Legislature expanding vouchers during the last session.

PHOENIX – A nonprofit funded at least in part by the Koch brothers is financing a six-figure TV campaign that a spokesman said is designed to “educate” Arizonans about school choice.

But Brian Faughnan said it isn’t designed to sway votes on a measure on next year’s ballot over the future of universal vouchers.

A commercial already up and running features what are billed as “Arizona moms” talking to the camera about the various options available, including traditional public schools, charter schools, private education as well as home schooling. In each case, the women say what makes that possible is “education choice.”

Faughnan said the campaign is “specific to Arizona,” – at this point confined to the Phoenix TV market – saying the idea is to inform residents about the options available to them “and the virtues of school choice policies or education freedom policies.”

One of those choices in Arizona is vouchers of state dollars parents can use to send their children to private or parochial schools. Originally approved as an option for students with special needs, proponents have convinced lawmakers to expand eligibility to where it now includes foster children, reservation residents and children attending schools rated D or F.

But there is a cap on enrollment of about 5,500; currently about 3,500 students get vouchers, which are formally known as “empowerment scholarship accounts.”

Earlier this year the Legislature voted narrowly to remove all conditions. But a compromise to get the necessary votes, supporters had to agree to a cap of about 30,000 by 2023.

Foes of the expansion gathered more than enough signatures to put the expansion on hold until voters can get a chance to ratify or reject the change. That measure will be on the ballot next November unless voucher supporters win a pending lawsuit to disqualify many of the signatures.

Faughnan said the money the Libre Initiative is spending now and will spend in the future is not designed to sway voters.

“This is not about the ballot initiative or the ESA law in the state,” he told Capitol Media Services, citing the organization’s status as a 501(c)(3) charity under the Internal Revenue Code. “This is about educational freedom more generally.”

But while the IRS prohibits such groups from supporting or opposing candidates, they are entitled to engage in “issue advocacy.” And that includes not only lobbying but also seeking to influence the outcome of a ballot measure, though an IRS publication says it “may not be more than insubstantial activity.”

Still, Faughnan acknowledged the TV campaign – he would not provide the budget other than to say it is “six figures” – comes ahead of what promises to be a high-profile fight over the future of vouchers.

“We’re aware that there is an initiative coming up, naturally,” he said. But Faughnan said the group is not new to Arizona and has been active here for several years.

As to the source of those funds, Faughnan said there are “a lot of different donors.”

“We’re blessed with many supporters that choose to promote prosperity for Hispanics and others through our organization,” he said. “And we’re fortunate enough to receive donations from Charles and David Koch and many others.”

Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona, the group that organized the referendum drive, said that there’s nothing wrong with what’s in the commercial or educating parents on various school options. But Penich-Thacker said she believes there’s another agenda at work.

“Why are they advertising that now?” she said of the timing. And Penich-Thacker said the Libre Initiative and its benefactors have a financial trail.

“Are they pouring millions of dollars into supporting public schools in Arizona, or are they pouring millions of dollars into supporting the voucher system?” she said.

“On its face, it’s totally innocuous,” Penich-Thacker continued. “But when you ask them what they’re not investing in, then I think their actual intentions are clear.”

This isn’t the Koch brothers’ first foray into the issue. They already are fighting the referendum in other ways.

Americans for Prosperity, another Koch-funded organization, has retained attorney Kory Langhofer in the bid to keep the measure off the 2018 ballot. A hearing on the challenge is set for next month in Maricopa County Superior Court.