Pennsylvania lawmakers who are being told to oppose school choice at the behest of a pressure group wedded to failing public schools would be well advised to follow the money trail. 

A group calling itself Education Voters of Pennsylvania is encouraging state residents to email the governor and state lawmakers asking them to oppose “Lifeline Scholarships” that enable school choice for low-income students. 

Susan Spicka, the group’s executive director, argues that the scholarships would undermine public schools “by funneling state funding into unaccountable private and religious institutions.” 

Yet Spicka leaves out the part about how conventional public schools continue to fail students in some of the poorest parts of the state despite the substantial taxpayer money currently pumped into those same schools. The most recent test scores released through the Pennsylvania Department of Education last year show that 77 percent of eighth-grade students are deficient in math and 44 percent in language arts — despite a significant jump in taxpayer spending on the commonwealth’s district schools. Government figures show statewide per-pupil funding increased to $21,263 in the 2021–22 school year, up almost 43 percent since 2013.

READ MORE — Kevin Mooney: Navigating open records requests in an age of pandemics, school closures, and mask mandates

But that’s not all. 

Under the sins of omission, Education Voters of Pennsylvania (also known as Education Voters PA) hasn’t bothered to inform state residents or elected officials that it serves as a conduit for interests outside of Pennsylvania. The pressure group identifies itself as a project of the Keystone Research Center (or Keystone) on the webpage where it solicits donations. That’s important, because Keystone receives significant support from funds that operate as nonprofit branches of Arabella Advisors under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code.

In addition to serving as a consulting firm, Arabella Advisors oversees a philanthropic network of nonprofit funds that donate to progressive causes. As of 2020, these funds had revenues exceeding $1.7 billion and expenditures of $1.3 billion, according to Capital Research Center’s Influence Watch

Keystone received $426,500 from Arabella’s Hopewell Fund in 2020 and $645,000 from Arabella’s New Venture Fund in 2020. That’s a lot of money put into play from outside of Pennsylvania to suffocate education reform on behalf of the students who need it most. 

At stake is the proposed “Lifeline Scholarship Program” delivering Education Opportunity Accounts to Pennsylvania students trapped in district schools that rank among the lowest-performing schools in the state. State Sen. Judy Ward, a Republican, introduced Senate Bill 795 earlier this month, which would provide parents and students with new pathways into private schools. If passed, the bill would provide $2,500 for a student in half-day kindergarten, $5,000 for a student in full-day kindergarten through eighth grade, $10,000 for students in grades nine through twelve, and $15,000 for special-needs students regardless of their grade.

Arabella is what’s aptly described as a “dark money” network that shields donors of far-left causes. And the fact that it is involved with Keystone is very telling. As a critical swing state, Pennsylvania would serve as an example for elected officials across the country eyeballing education reform. 

Influence Watch describes Keystone as a “left-of-center policy organization” with revenue of $1.8 billion and assets of $1.4 million. Keystone is closely linked with Pennsylvania government unions opposed to school choice. Labor Department financial disclosure records show that in 2021, Keystone received $25,000 from Pennsylvania’s American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 13; $25,500 from the commonwealth’s largest teacher union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA); $5,000 from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) national headquarters; and $20,000 from UFCW Local 1776.

The upshot here is that most of the funding is from inside Pennsylvania. But elected officials who are being told to vote down “Lifeline Scholarships” need to ask themselves if the money standing behind the messaging against scholarships has the best interests of students in mind. That is a question that needs asking regardless of whether the money comes from inside or outside of Pennsylvania. 

Kevin Mooney is the Senior Investigative Journalist at the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank. He writes for several national publications. Twitter: @KevinMooneyDC 

2 thoughts on “Kevin Mooney: The dark money message lurking behind the assault on school choice”

  1. Of course b&l will never tell you about the billions put into this issue by Devos, Leonard Leo, and their ilk.

    The radical right opened the Pandora’s box with the citizen’s united ruling and now are whining about the consequences of their actions. Sad.

  2. Of course, the Left won’t tell you about the money plugged into “no school choice” by Gates and Common Core or by the associates of the Soro billions. How can anyone support forced public school when “progressive” educators openly state that parents have no right to information on the child’s education and no right to guide that education. Socialism, the sexualization of children and racial discord is the new norm in education.

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