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Does 'Revolving Door' for Voucher Lobbyists Spin Fast in Wisconsin?

A persistent habit among ex-legislators is to join various special interest groups, execute deft 180-degree turns, and stride confidently back to their former colleagues as lobbyists. But last week, the Associated Press flagged an interesting convergence for school voucher lobbyists in Wisconsin: Three voucher proponents lobbying legislators in Madison are former Republican speakers of the Wisconsin Assembly. That figure includes the immediate past speaker, Jeff Fitzgerald, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate last year and lost in the GOP primary to Tommy Thompson.

When one thinks about lobbying's "revolving door" relationship with politics, education isn't necessarily one of the issues that defines that dynamic. Wisconsin's example may show that's changing, depending on the issue. When I called up Malcom Glenn, the spokesman for the pro-voucher American Federation for Children, which is employing one of the former GOP speakers (Scott Jensen) as a voucher lobbyist, he said that Jensen's "extremely passionate" position on vouchers made him invaluable to the movement, regardless of his partisan affiliation.

Glenn, by the way, mentioned that states to watch in terms of voucher news in 2013 include North Carolina and Tennessee, which both have GOP governors and Republican-led legislatures.

Back to Wisconsin for a moment. AFC, naturally enough, wants the state's existing voucher program in Milwaukee and Racine to be expanded statewide as soon as this year. But Glenn conceded that it's more likely the program will grow more gradually, if at all, in 2013.

"We were really pleased to have a fair amount of Democratic support for the expansion of the program back in 2011," Glenn said, referring to the voucher program's expansion into Racine, where the cap on voucher participation will be lifted in the next school year. "We certainly don't have the amount of bipartisan support that we ultimately want."

Jensen, it should be noted, isn't new as an AFC lobbyist in 2013, having worked on campaigns of pro-voucher Democrats last year. Despite Glenn's emphasis on bipartisanship, it's notable that of the five Democrats for whom Jensen campaigned in 2012 based on their voucher support, all lost in their primaries. Glenn did acknowledge that the divisive political atmosphere around Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, could be a factor in slowing vouchers' growth.

In the AP story, Common Cause Wisconsin Executive Director Jay Heck said the three former legislators serving as voucher lobbyists highlight the need for reforms like a mandatory "cooling off" period between people's time in the legislature and as lobbyists.

"Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana all have 'cooling off' periods," Heck told me in a separate interview. "And Wisconsin doesn't? What is that about?"

Moving back to North Carolina and Tennessee: Why does Glenn think those two states bear watching?

His evidence for the Tar Heel State was to highlight that in 2011, the state lifted the cap on charter schools, which Glenn said is an important step in terms of highlighting "school choice" in general. (Some would disagree, of course, as to the overlap in policy and political appeal between charters and vouchers.) New GOP Gov. Pat McCrory was pegged as a voucher supporter during North Carolina's 2012 gubernatorial campaign by Democrats and has expressed support for school choice in general.

As for the Volunteer State, Glenn said that Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's support for a "limited school voucher program" is a good sign (a previous voucher bill introduced by Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Republican, failed in 2011, Glenn noted).

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