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Betsy DeVos-founded group lobbies Congress for D.C. voucher program extension

President Trump greets Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during a White House event celebrating Women’s History Month on March 29. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The American Federation for Children is a 501(c)(4) lobbying and advocacy group founded by the billionaire family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. It calls itself “the nation’s leading school choice organization,” and, according to its website, is affiliated with the American Federation for Children Action Fund, a political committee that supports and opposes state-level candidates for elected office. It also works with the American Federation for Children Growth Fund, a 501(c)(3) organization, “to promote the benefits of — and the need for — school choice, make parents aware of their options, mobilize grassroots supports and ensure private-school-choice-laws work for students.” (See below for the difference between groups designated 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4).)

DeVos was chairman of the tax-exempt 501(c)(4) lobbying group for years until she was nominated late last year to be education secretary by President-elect Donald Trump, at which time, the organization noted in a statement about her successor, Bill Oberndorf:

Under Betsy’s visionary leadership, AFC has more than doubled the number of children and families we serve through educational choice programs. While we regret that Betsy will have to step down as AFC’s chairman due to her nomination to be the next secretary of education, we are incredibly excited about the impact she can now have by leading the fight at the federal level to expand education opportunities across the entire country. We also know that under Bill’s leadership, AFC will continue to have a lasting impact on education in America.

The American Federation for Children has long lobbied for choice programs, and, now that DeVos is education secretary, continues to do so. It has been lobbying Congress and state legislatures this year to push for more school choice programs, specifically for an extension of the only federally funded school voucher program in the country, the one in Washington.

Michael Musante, a lobbyist for the organization, filed a lobbying report with Congress this year saying he was earning nearly $20,000 to lobby on behalf of the organization for the extension of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which helps 1,100 low-income students attend private schools. DeVos has been a strong supporter of the program, which is authorized through fiscal 2019. That amount of money is small compared with the millions of dollars DeVos and her family have spent supporting school choice programs and pro-school-choice candidates over the years.

Musante’s lobbying report said the organization was seeking a five-year program extension. The Washington Post reported Monday that Congress is expected to extend the voucher program for five years as part of a bipartisan budget deal. Lawmakers were not fazed a bit by a new report that found that students in the D.C. voucher program did not fare as well as students who applied for but didn’t get a voucher.

Congress expected to reauthorize D.C. school vouchers in sweeping budget deal

Questions have been raised about how independent the organization is from DeVos.

In January, Matt Frendewey, who was then the communications director for the American Federation for Children and has since joined the Education Department as a spokesman, denied that the organization had coordinated with DeVos to get supporters to attend her Senate confirmation hearing in February. DeVos got bad reviews for her performance at the hearing for her inability to answer questions about basic education issues.

According to the Detroit News:

In a series of emails, the group offered to fly guests out to Washington, D.C., for her hearing, asked them to conduct media interviews “supporting her nomination,” provided them with talking points and invited them to lunch with DeVos and her husband.
“I am contacting you on behalf of Secretary of Education-designate Betsy DeVos,” Jana Gregg, national summit manager for the AFC, wrote in a Jan. 3 email to Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal. “We are inviting you to attend the hearings as her guest.”
American Federation for Children spokesman Matt Frendeway said Friday that Gregg made a mistake when she suggested the invitation came from DeVos herself. He was adamant that DeVos no longer plays any role in AFC, and he said the group did not run the guest list past her before extending any invitations.

(The difference between 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4): Both are nonprofit organizations that are exempt from paying federal taxes and, in theory, are designed to promote social welfare causes. But they are subject to different regulations. The former can’t lobby without notifying the Internal Revenue Service, while the latter can lobby as much as desired for causes linked to the mission of the organization.)

Here’s the top of the American Federation for Children’s 2017 lobbying form, and you can see the entire thing here.