School Choice Group Turns Its Back on Washington, Focuses on States

A school choice organization, funded by wealthy Republicans, is setting an example for groups considering a shift in focus from Washington to state capitals.

The American Federation for Children, formerly known as the Alliance for School Choice, describes itself as “a leading national advocacy organization promoting school choice.”

The organization was launched in 2010 and operates regional offices across the country.

Its chair is Betsy DeVos, former chair of the Michigan Republican Party. She is married to Dick DeVos, an unsuccessful candidate for governor of Michigan and son of billionaire Richard DeVos, Amway co-founder.

The federation has racked up a series of successes by spending almost no money nationally, concentrating instead on the states, where media campaigns are cheaper and more manageable, and disclosure requirements are often far less stringent.

(For state-by-state reviews of lobby disclosure requirements, see Open Congress and Follow the Money.)

The federation is registered as a federal lobbying client. However, it has just one registered lobbyist, John Schilling, and reported spending less than $5,000 per quarter in 2011.

Instead, it provides support to state-based organizations, many of which are registered lobby clients.

For example, the federation has provided grants to the School Choice Indiana Network, Boast Alliance Maryland, and Partners for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. All are registered as lobby clients in their states.

According to IRS documents, DeVos also chairs a 527 group, the American Federation for Children Action Fund. The group’s major donors include hedge funder Julian H. Robertson Jr., who gave $1 million, and Wal-Mart heirs Alice Walton ($1.3 million) and her brother, Jim Walton ($200,000).

Other big donors included Susquehanna International Group co-founders Arthur Dantchik and Jeff Yass, who each gave $433,000, and Joel Greenberg ($584,000).

The action fund reported contributing $800,000 in 2010 to the federation and $365,000 to the Republican Governors Association. It also contributed nearly $2.2 million to political committees and campaigns in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah.

The federation has declared a number of victories in recent months.

In Georgia, the House of Representatives passed legislation in February reinstating a commission that authorized charter schools. The measure was pushed by House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, who received a $2,400 donation from the action fund.

In Florida, the action fund financed a group called Committee for Florida’s Education, which sent out mailers attacking Democratic attorney general candidate Dan Gelber of fighting “scholarships to help our needy children attend Jewish private schools.” Gelber lost, after criticizing the mailer as “in-the-gutter political hate mail.”

The winning candidate, Pam Bondi, is a supporter of school choice.

A November 2011 study by the National Institute on Money in State Politics found that the federation spent $1.1 million in Florida during the 2010 election cycle. Total spending from 2006 through 2010 was almost $6.3 million.

In Virginia, the General Assembly just passed legislation calling for scholarship tax credits. The measure is designed to provide low-income families with more access to private school education.

And in Wisconsin, the action fund paid for robo calls, radio and other media to help candidates supporting school choice. On Thursday, the state Assembly passed legislation to create a voucher program for children with special needs.

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