Follow the Money: With ESAs on the line, school choice groups spend big

Riley Snyder
Riley Snyder
Megan Messerly
Megan Messerly

Nevada is shaping up to be a major battleground in the national debate over educational choice after authorizing the broadest school voucher-style program in the country in 2015.

The Nevada Supreme Court recently ruled the Educational Savings Account program was constitutional but struck down the funding mechanism. With Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval announcing his plan to put $60 million toward the program, there’s just one more hurdle to cross — a Legislature controlled by Democrats, who have been resistant to the idea.

It may be why groups on both sides of the debate, from unions to nonprofit think tanks to philanthropists eager to overhaul public education, have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into legislative campaign coffers, according to a Nevada Independent review of campaign finance records.

Battles over education funding aren’t surprising — teachers unions are traditional behemoths in the campaign finance world.

But the funds being spent by education activists supporting school choice are a new wrinkle in the small world of Nevada campaign finance. Listed below are several groups that spent big during the the 2016 campaign cycle.

Nevada Federation for Children PAC

An offshoot of the national American Federation for Children, Nevada Federation for Children, is a school choice advocacy group based in Washington D.C. The national group’s former chairwoman, Betsy DeVos, is President Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education and a major conservative donor in Michigan and throughout the country.

The Nevada Federation for Children spent roughly $200,000 in Nevada throughout the 2016 campaign cycle, with all of the money coming from out-of-state donors including several members of the ultra-wealthy DeVos clan and numerous businesses based in Michigan. These include:

Donations to Nevada lawmakers include:

  • $7,500 to Republican Sen. Heidi Gansert in two separate contributions on the same day in mid-October
  • $5,000 to Democratic Assemblyman Justin Watkins in October. Watkins appears to be the only legislative Democrat who openly supports ESAs.
  • $5,000 to Republican Assemblyman Jim Marchant in October
  • $5,000 to Republican Assemblyman Richard McArthur in October. (The contribution was listed as coming from “Nevada Foundation for Children,” which appears to be a mistake: it’s listed at the same P.O. Box as one of the “Nevada Federation for Children” contributions.)
  • $2,500 to the Growth & Opportunity PAC, run by Republican Assembly Leader Paul Anderson, in April.
  • $2,000 to Republican Assembly Leader Paul Anderson in May
  • $2,000 to Republican Assemblyman James Oscarson in June
  • $2,000 to Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Woodbury in May
  • $1,500 to Republican Assemblyman Keith Pickard in June
  • $1,500 to Republican Assemblywoman Jill Tolles in June
  • $1,000 to Republican Sen. Scott Hammond in June. Hammond sponsored the original ESA legislation in 2015.


StudentsFirst, a Sacramento-based political lobbying organization, was founded in 2010 by Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of the Washington D.C. public school system. The group advocates a number of education reform policies including charter schools, voucher programs and ending teacher tenure.

According to a 2013 Los Angeles Times profile, the group spent nearly $2 million on general election candidates in 2012, most of them Republicans. Because it’s registered as a nonprofit, the group isn’t required to reveal any of its donors, but Rhee has said the group has received funding from numerous educational philanthropies including the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and Eli Broad.

Although his former press secretary left to work for the group, campaign finance records show Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval has not received any contributions from StudentsFirst.

Donations to Nevada lawmakers include:

  • $75,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee between 2013 and 2014
  • $13,000 to Republican Assembly Leader Paul Anderson between 2012 and 2015
  • $12,000 to Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer between 2013 and 2015
  • $10,000 to Assembly Democrats in October 2012
  • $10,000 to Democratic Assemblyman Skip Daly between June and October 2014
  • $10,000 to Democratic Sen. Mo Denis between 2012 and 2014
  • $9,000 to Democratic Assemblyman Elliot Anderson between 2012 and 2014
  • $9,000 to Republican Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson in 2014
  • $7,500 to Nevada Senate Democrats in October 2012
  • $4,000 to Republican Sen. Becky Harris in October 2015
  • $5,000 to the Republican Assembly Caucus in November 2012
  • $5,000 to Senate Republicans in October 2012
  • $5,000 to Democratic Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen in 2014
  • $4,000 to Republican Sen. Scott Hammond in October 2012
  • $4,000 to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford between 2012 and 2013
  • $4,000 to former Republican state senator and current Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison in 2012
  • $2,000 to Democratic Sen. Joyce Woodhouse in 2012
  • $2,000 to Democratic Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz in 2013
  • $1,000 to Republican Assemblyman James Oscarson in 2012

LIBRE Initiative

A nonprofit group designed to promote the “principles and values of economic freedom” to the Hispanic community, the LIBRE Initiative has taken an active political role in Nevada. The group is bankrolled by Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian-leaning, free-market political advocacy group funded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

The LIBRE Initiative hasn’t directly given to any members of the Nevada Legislature, but the group did spend more than six figures on ads attacking Democratic Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto during the 2016 campaign.

The group is spearheading a “School Choice Week” rally in Carson City on Wednesday.

Academica Nevada

Academica Nevada is an organization that provides professional services and support to charter schools in Nevada, Hawaii and Colorado. The group’s website says they currently work for Somerset Academy of Las Vegas, Doral Academy of Nevada, Pinecrest Academy of Nevada, Mater Academy of Nevada and SLAM of Nevada. It’s also one of the official event planners for Wednesday’s school choice rally in Carson City.

State campaign finance records show the group has given about $22,000 to candidates since 2014, mostly to municipal candidates. It has given $2,000 to Republican Assembly Leader Paul Anderson and $2,500 to the Nevada Senate Democrats in 2016.

Other school choice groups

EdChoice, formerly known as the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, is one of the leading education reform organizations supporting school voucher programs. As a nonprofit, the organization does not have to disclose its donors.

EdChoice reimbursed Republican Sen. Scott Hammond $525.10 on Jan. 11, 2016 and Republican Sen. Becky Harris $308.57 in late September for travel-related expenses. (The amount paid to Hammond is listed as a contribution in his campaign report. However, an EdChoice spokeswoman clarified the payment was a reimbursement and that the organization does not make political contributions.)

An Idaho-based school choice program, Bluum, also gave Hammond $200.50 on Jan. 11, 2016, while the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, gave Hammond another $515.17 on Dec. 15, 2015. Hammond said Wednesday that both payments were "probably, most likely" reimbursements as well.

Bush also directly donated $250 to Hammond in December.

1-25-17: This story has been updated to reflect clarifying information from EdChoice regarding the nature of the payment made to Sen. Scott Hammond and from Hammond regarding two other payments made by other organizations.


Featured Videos