Who's Behind Dick Morris' “School Choice” Crusade?

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- No venue provides a more exquisite fit for a Dick Morris speaking event than the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The high walls of this monument to speed and sponsorship feature mural-sized photos of the greatest car-and-drivers ever sold, their hoods and helmets bursting with brands both familiar and forgotten. Dick Morris could match any of them with the sponsors to whom he's rented his name in recent years.

That roster now includes the logos of National School Choice Week (NSCW) and its patron, the Gleason Family Foundation. It was in their name that Morris cruised into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on January 26 as part of a national speaking tour to promote “school choice,” a conservative crusade to steer tax dollars out of public schools and into the private education sector, which is heavily religious and non-union. Over the past year, Morris' NSCW involvement has included several plugs for the events during seemingly non-related appearances on Fox News, including spots on Hannity and On The Record With Greta Van Susteren. In a typical appearance, Morris blasted President Obama for failing to discuss National School Choice Week and the school choice movement.

“I'm here in Chicago; it's National School Choice Week,” Morris told Sean Hannity. “All over the country, people are going to charter and other schools as an alternative to the teachers union monopoly and [Obama] didn't mention it.”


Speaking of things not mentioned, at no point during his NASCAR Hall of Fame speech or his various Fox appearances did Morris disclose that the Gleason Family Foundation -- a major funder of School Choice Week -- has paid out at least $180,000 in “marketing” fees to Triangulation Strategies, a consulting firm registered to Morris' wife and co-author, Eileen McGann. (Morris has frequently used Triangulation Strategies to collect fees from candidates and political groups.) As with so many slides on Morris' well-worn coin-operated viewfinder, his school-choice promotion coincides with lucrative business relationships.

Now in its third year, NSCW puts forth the grassroots image of a movement comprised of nearly 300 equal partners, many of whom are parochial day schools and local parents' associations. But these groups are no more equipped to remunerate Dick Morris than they are to coordinate something on the scale of NSCW, a well-planned and well-funded campaign that this year provided branded yellow scarves and organizing packs to more than 400 events nationwide.

The real architecture of NSCW funding begins to come into focus upon arrival at the larger events. The sign that greeted attendees at Morris' NASCAR Hall of Fame speech displayed the logo of Americans for Prosperity, the national Koch brothers-funded organizing outfit that was instrumental in supporting the Tea Party around the time Gleason was seeding the first NSCW. Other backers of NSCW include AFP's partners in the education-privatization movement: ALEC, the Heritage Foundation, and Freedomworks.

"[Morris] is with the Gleason Family Foundation, I think he's on their board," said Chris Farr, grassroots coordinator for Americans for Prosperity in North Carolina. “During School Choice Week, a lot of people partner. School Choice Week sent him to [Americans for Prosperity], and we partnered with them for around 35 events.” (Gleason's tax documents don't list Morris as a board member, and Morris and Gleason did not return requests for comment on their relationship and the purpose behind Gleason's $180,000 payment to Morris' firm.)

The Gleason Family Foundation remains the hub at the center of the NSCW funding network. According to the foundation's most recent tax filings, Gleason provided $1.8 million for NSCW in 2010. “Gleason Family Foundation works with a variety of school reform organizations,” says the description of the investment. “Each have a specialty: charter school growth and success, universal vouchers and tuition tax credits, corralling out-of-control spending or union accountability but each is equally important and all should plan to be a part of this special week.”

For a foundation of its size, Gleason is a relative hermit. The conservative funding arm of the Gleason machine-parts conglomerate based in Rochester, N.Y., it has a war chest of $160 million. But it does not have a website or a listed phone number. The only mentions of the Gleason family on the NSCW website are event RSVPs and a happy hour contact listing from Tracy Gleason, the foundation's CEO.

But Gleason is still a major force at work behind what appears to be a permanent feature of the conservative winter calendar. Messages left on the answering service listed on Gleason's tax filings were returned not by a Gleason representative, but by Andrew Campanella, School Choice Week's vice president for Public Affairs. Campanella downplayed the Gleason Foundation's role in NSCW and stressed the weeklong event was just an “organic group that came together and brought resources and talents to the table to plan events across the country.”

National School Choice Week is as “organic” as a Twinkie, and a handful of usual suspects on the right seem to bring the bulk of the resources to the table. Many of these groups receive targeted Gleason funding for school-choice projects, and the issue's profile boost in recent years can be attributed in large part to Gleason money. Along with NSCW, Gleason's major activities in 2010 included $800,000 for a school-choice conference called “Where's the Outrage?”; $1.5 million to work with the Moving Picture Institute to write a film about DC school vouchers activist Virgnia Walden Ford; and a $300,000 contract with Frank Luntz to poll-test school-choice language.

The foundation also functions as a grant-sprinkler for start-ups and veterans of the school-choice movement. In 2010, this included: $250,000 to the Center for Education Reform; nearly $600,000 to the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice; $125,000 to the Heritage Foundation; $50,000 to the CATO Institute; and nearly a dozen grants totaling more than $2 million to the Education Action Group Foundation.

As with many of its peers, Gleason's passion for school choice is inseparable from an animus toward teachers unions and organized labor in general. The foundation has funded a “Teachers Union initiative” at the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, where Stefan Gleason served as vice president from 1999 to 2010. The foundation also supports the Center for Union Facts, an anti-labor group run by Rick Berman.

The school choice movement bankrolled by the Gleason Foundation likes to portray itself as secular, bipartisan, and popular. The Dick Morris event in Charlotte provided further evidence that it's none of the above. Not even Morris' conservative star power could draw more than several dozen school-choice supporters from a greater Charlotte population of nearly two million -- barely enough to fill the front rows of the auditorium. The proceedings began, as many of these events do, with prayer. The Americans for Prosperity emcee followed this with a broadside against “leftist teacher unions that hate educational achievement.”

As for being bipartisan, the organizers dropped all pretenses during cocktail-hour.

“This is supposed to be a non-partisan event, but we're going to go off-record for a little bit, so put your phones and your Twitters away,” chuckled Dallas Woodhouse, the North Carolina director for Americans for Prosperity. “Dick Morris is going to talk about our prospects in November.”

The Fox pundit then proceeded to hold forth on his great respect for both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, and expressed his hope that Marco Rubio would join the nominee on the ticket.

In his remarks that followed, Morris compared education to consumer items like cars, refrigerators and stoves. A school, he said, should be run like a business in order to improve the “product.” Echoing a central school-choice talking point, Morris described U.S. K - 12 education as a “public monopoly” and suggested ways states can bypass constitutional constraints against using tax dollars to support religious education. This is, after all, what voucher systems inevitably accomplish. Eighty percent of K - 12 private-school students in the U.S. attend religious schools.

If the school choice movement succeeds in its quest to spread voucher systems across the country, expect to hear Dick Morris on Fox News one day touting the benefits of the for-profit education chains that will spring up as a result. And if that happens, it would be wise to once again check to see who's paying Dick Morris.

Eric Hananoki and Jeremy Schulman contributed to this report.