Organized five years ago as a political action committee - a fledgling roost for charter-school and private-school devotees - Parents for Choice initially was relatively low-budget and weak. But an infusion of out-of-state financing has changed that, allowing the group to build a base of support in the state Legislature and Governor's Office and shape the education-reform debate in Utah.
So far this year, the voucher advocates and related political organizations and individuals have given 21 candidates for the state Legislature more than $64,000 leading up to party conventions and Tuesday's primary election. Undoubtedly, that number will grow as candidates work their way to November's general election and Parents for Choice's financiers continue to send checks.
If money is power, Parents for Choice is bulking up.
When voucher advocates first opened their doors, their ideas were big but money was scarce. Venture capitalist Jordan Clements and telecommunications executive Doug Holmes believed Utah needed a political organization to push education reform: merit pay for teachers and "school choice" - charter schools, private-school scholarships, vouchers and tax credits.
In 2002, with just $10,000, the PAC gave modest donations to a dozen conservative lawmakers and candidates. The next year was even leaner. Only six candidates received cash. But in 2004, all that changed with $255,000 in seed money from Michigan-based All Children Matter. That year, the PAC spread its good fortune around. And Parents for Choice supporter Patrick Byrne, Overstock.com chief, chipped in $75,000 for Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
Now, there are spinoffs of the PAC - Education Excellence Utah and Children First Utah. Other related or sympathetic PACs have formed recently, including Utah Working Moms and Dads, whose founders include former Salt Lake County Councilman Russell Skousen, and Future Moms and Dads.
Parents for Choice in Education director Elisa Clements Peterson, Clements' daughter, refuses to comment about her organization's financing until September - a federal tax deadline that coincides with a state deadline for political action committee disclosure forms.
"Nobody's going to comment," communications director Nancy Pomeroy said. When pressed about the sources of Parents for Choice's money, specifically All Children Matter, Pomeroy said: "I don't know what you're talking about."
All Children Matter evolved out of a failed 2000 Michigan citizens initiative for private-school vouchers. Chairwoman Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick, have a long history of pushing for "school choice."
In 2001, Betsy DeVos organized the Great Lakes Education Project to push for charter schools in Michigan's Legislature.
Two years later, that group morphed into All Children Matter. Dick DeVos is an Amway heir and a 2006 candidate for Michigan governor.
The DeVos family has spent a good chunk of their fortune on the PAC. Along with them, Wal-Mart heirs Jim and John Walton are frequent donors, giving more than $3 million to the PAC in 2004.
Utah's voucher and tax-credit advocates have received their share of that funding. All Children Matter Director Greg Brock says along with Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, Missouri, Virginia and Wisconsin, Utah is a key state for the school-choice movement - in part because a political action committee already existed here. Also, campaign money spreads further in small states.
"Our goal is to try to change the political climate in states where education reform is pretty active or being debated in a high-profile way," Brock said.
Utah certainly qualifies. Virtually every year since Parents for Choice formed, Utah lawmakers have debated the merits of some legislation pushed by Parents for Choice - including proposals for publicly-funded tax credits or vouchers for parents who send their children to private schools, scholarships for disabled students and easing regulations on charter schools. The most controversial issues - vouchers and tax credits - inevitably stall as lawmakers split along the narrowest of margins.
Parents for Choice and All Children Matter are determined to shift that margin, Brock says. But like Peterson, Brock declined to talk about how much money the Michigan PAC is sending west this election year until September, for "strategic reasons."
The strategy is clear. So far, tax-credit advocates have targeted moderate, public-education friendly legislators, many of them schoolteachers. And the tactic already has worked: Lehi Rep. David Cox, a fifth-grade teacher, lost his bid for re-election at the Utah County Republican convention in April. His opponent, Ken Sumsion, got $3,545 from Parents for Choice and Utah Working Moms and Dads.
"That money made the biggest difference," Cox said. "They were researching my record a year ago to find any bills they could twist to make me look bad. I couldn't compete with the level of sophistication and expertise that was brought in."
Public-school critics insist they are simply countering the power and money of teachers unions, the National Education Association and Utah Education Association.
Parents for Choice board member Steve Poulton, a former legislator, said sending money to sympathetic candidates is the PAC's right as a participant in democracy. If anything, he wrote in an editorial for the online newsletter Utah Policy Daily earlier this year, Parents for Choice is balancing out the power of the UEA.
"It is delightful to see an organization like Parents for Choice in Education take on historically the most powerful special interest group in the state, the teachers union," Poulton said. "The education lobby - led by the teachers union - has long been without a counterbalance of any kind."
So far this year, UEA has spent $5,000 in legislative races, said Vik Arnold, UEA government relations and political-action director. Just three candidates have reported receiving cash from the teachers union.
UEA President Pat Rusk draws a line between her organization's political activities and that of school-choice advocates. For one thing, she says, UEA's funding comes from individual Utah teachers' donations and dues, which are pooled together. Parents for Choice seems to be financed in $1 million increments by wealthy, out-of-state business owners, Rusk said. She believes those donations undermine Parents for Choice's claims to be representing hundreds of Utah parents who want to buck public education.
"The money has allowed them to have Web sites and commercials," Rusk said. "There's a perception that they're bigger than they really are."
Whatever the number of its supporters, the survival of Parents for Choice is no longer in question. Seven candidates were on the group's "hit list" this year. With financing from groups like All Children Matter, that list likely will grow.