Records Suggest WPRI-UW Poll Materials Deliberately Removed References to Statewide Opposition to Private School Vouchers

Lightbourn Email: 'I've Been Burned a Couple Times and I Don't Need to Be the One Holding the Gas Can'

MADISON, Wis. — A University of Wisconsin polling project downplayed opposition to private school vouchers after a conservative think tank paying for the polling raised political concerns, documents obtained by One Wisconsin Now show.

The poll is an on-going project between the state’s leading conservative think tank, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s political science department. The concerns were raised by WPRI President George Lightbourn, a former Republican state official, to project director and UW-Madison professor Ken Goldstein. Financial documents show UW is receiving $17,977 by WPRI for the project to cover a portion of Goldstein’s salary.

The results of the poll, conducted in September 2009, showed statewide opposition to private school vouchers by a margin of 46.6 percent to 42.4 percent. The subsequent press releases from the UW and WPRI only used figures from Milwaukee County, where a majority supported vouchers.

The emails and documents, which One Wisconsin Now received under the state’s open records law and are quoted below, show that political calculations were front and center with the project, most notably:

  • A powerpoint slide depicting the 46.6-42.4 percent statewide opposition to private school vouchers was deleted and instead a slide emphasizing support in Milwaukee for vouchers was used as the final slide in the presentation;
  • References to statewide opposition in the poll to private school vouchers were specifically avoided in the press release, despite research materials produced by UW’s Goldstein originally having references to the statewide data;
  • Press releases on the UW and WPRI websites included only the more favorable Milwaukee voucher poll results and a quote from Lightbourn reinforcing WPRI’s education agenda.

“Many were immediately alarmed by the announcement of this financial venture between our University of Wisconsin and the state’s leading right wing think tank,” said Scot Ross, One Wisconsin Now Executive Director. “Sadly, it appears our worst fears were confirmed, and so we are calling on University of Wisconsin faculty, staff, students and alumni to demand the Board of Regents end this project.”

The edited powerpoint is available at WPRI’s website, as is the press release. Another version of the release which includes the voucher-friendly material is available at the UW-Madison political science department website. A copy of the original deleted slide depicting the overall statewide opposition to private school vouchers is available at: http://www.onewisconsinnow.org/page/-/media/wpriUWpollSchoolVoucher20100115.pdf.

According to emails from October 2, 2009, the day before the first release of the materials on the poll, Lightbourn attempts to get Goldstein to include materials in the poll top lines that would deliberately downplay the statewide voucher question. Top lines are a list of each question asked and the overall responses to each question in a poll:

“Yes, but I don’t want the top line going out without it and was hoping we could incorporate this with the question. Otherwise, someone with ill intentions could use our release inappropriately.”

Goldstein responds 17 minutes later to Lightbourn, expressing apparent concern about this variation on standard operating procedure for the release of polling information:

“i understand, but i think it looks strange to put in the regional breakdown in the toplines just on that one question. we have the comparisons in the powerpoints … you can make the regional document i sent a little prettier and post as a seperate (sic) thing, but i think the toplines should be the toplines for the state.”

Lightbourn responds shortly after with blunt political concerns:

“I’m not concerned about journalists. I’m concerned about the Scott (sic) Ross types who would enjoy being able to portray WPRI’s own data as showing lack of support for choice. I know it’s a pain in the ass but I’ve been burned a couple of times and I don’t need to be the one holding the gas can.”

On October 5, 2009, the day after the altered powerpoint and release without the statewide results was sent out by both WPRI and the UW, Lightbourn thanks Goldstein:

“Thanks for the added info. over the weekend. It helped immensely with my correspondence with my board and other consumers of WPRI material.”

“This is a lesson about the credibility and the trustworthiness of materials produced by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute,” said Ross. “If polling results don’t fit its pro-voucher agenda, then those polling results are erased from the final analysis. Most unfortunately, the UW is now tied directly to this manipulation to serve the political agenda of WPRI.”

According to a memorandum of understanding on the project signed October 1, 2009, by the WPRI and the UW, a portion of Goldstein’s salary is being paid by WPRI, while the UW is providing an “experienced graduate student” funded by the UW to support the program. Goldstein additionally heads the Wisconsin Advertising Project, also located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s political science department.

One Wisconsin Now has hundreds of pages of additional documents about the project that are currently under review, Ross said.

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One Wisconsin Now is a statewide communications network specializing in effective earned media and online organizing to advance progressive leadership and values.