Influence Peddler of the Month for June 2018 - American Federation for Children

June 1, 2018

(This profile updates information and figures in a previous October 2016 feature.)

This is a pro-school-voucher group based in Washington, D.C., that has spent more than $6.5 million on outside electioneering activities to back mostly Republican legislative candidates in Wisconsin since 2010.

During much of that time, the GOP controlled the legislature and sharply expanded the allowable enrollment and state spending on religious and private voucher schools.

In Wisconsin and elsewhere, school voucher programs are generally supported by Republicans and opposed by most Democrats, who say the programs are unaccountable and inferior alternatives that siphon scarce resources from public education.

The federation, founded by Betsy DeVos, is among the top special interest group spenders on activities to influence Wisconsin state elections. It generally targets a handful of Assembly and Senate races that have been pivotal in maintaining or increasing the GOP’s margin of legislative control in recent years.

The federation operates two corporations that pay for mailings and broadcast ads that generally attack Democratic candidates. Those attacks use issues like economic development, government spending and taxes, but rarely touch on school voucher programs or education.

That strategy likely comes from the group’s senior adviser, Scott Jensen, the former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker from 1997 until 2002 who was disgraced in the caucus scandal.

The group does not make or funnel direct contributions to candidates through a political action committee or conduit, but relies on a nationwide network of conservative billionaires and millionaires throughout the country who back school voucher programs. Between January 2010 and December 2017, about four dozen school voucher backers contributed about $2.3 million to mostly GOP legislative and statewide candidates in Wisconsin. The top contributors include:

Robert and Patricia Kern, of Waukesha, founders of Generac Corp., $303,090;

Foster Friess, of Jackson, Wyo., owner of Friess Associates, and his wife, Lynn, $163,200;

Dennis Kuester, of Naples, Fla., a retired M&I Bank chairman, and his wife, Sandy, $154,400;

Roger Hertog, a retired New York City financier, $125,000;

Bruce Kovner, a New York City hedge fund founder, and his wife, Suzie, $120,000;

Unlike the federation’s public face, which rarely uses voucher and education issues in its electioneering activities, the group almost exclusively lobbies on public education and school voucher spending and policy.

Between January 2011 and December 2017, with Republicans in control of the legislature and GOP Gov. Scott Walker in office, the federation spent about $426,350 on lobbying. The lobbying and campaign activities paid off.

State voucher programs were expanded to Racine in 2011 and then statewide in 2013.

The number of voucher schools in the statewide program increased from an initial 25 in 2013-14 to more than 220 for 2018-19. All told, about 400 schools registered to participate in the state’s three voucher programs for 2018-19.

There are no enrollment limits in the Milwaukee and Racine voucher programs, and the legislature lifted the state voucher program’s enrollment limit so it will steadily increase each year until 2026-27 when there will be no more limit.

State spending on the three voucher programs totaled $1.2 billion between 2011 and 2017.