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School choice group denies coordination with DeVos

Jonathan Oosting, and Melissa Nann Burke

A school-choice advocacy group formerly chaired by Betsy DeVos is denying any ongoing coordination with her after a staffer purported to invite guests on her behalf to a congressional nomination hearing.

Critics say the invitation — included in email correspondence obtained by The Detroit News — raises questions about DeVos’ ties to the nonprofit American Federation for Children, which she said she resigned from Nov. 22 after President Donald Trump nominated her to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

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.

“There was no coordination whatsoever,” he said. “AFC took care of inviting guests that we know believe in school choice and this issue and support Betsy. You have one staff member who, routinely, overstepped their bounds in terms of how they phrased these emails, but to insinuate that means Betsy organized this or is part of AFC carries absolutely no merit.”

In the emails, first reported by WOOD TV 8, Gregg indicated AFC would pay for or reimburse travel and lodging expenses related to Neal’s proposed trip to Washington. The guests were also invited to lunch with DeVos and her husband, Dick, at Charlie Palmer Steakhouse after the hearing and their press interviews.

In her correspondence with Neal and school staffers, Gregg used her official AFC email address. Later, she and other AFC staff used personal email accounts to finalize travel arrangements. She continued to refer to recipients as “Betsy’s guests” beyond the initial invitation.

The Jan. 11 hearing was ultimately postponed, and Neal did not go to Washington. A public supporter of the West Michigan Republican, Neal could have helped counter arguments from Democrats and teacher unions that DeVos doesn’t support public schools.

A matter of association

Lonnie Scott, executive director of liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan, said the emails raise questions about DeVos’ relationship with the groups that she and her husband funded to advocate for causes they support. DeVos said she resigned any positions that might cause a conflict with her appointment.

“One family had been paying for this whole organization. Even if they say they’ve divested or are no longer in control, they’re obviously still exerting some power,” Scott said.

Frendeway said DeVos no longer is associated with the organization in any way, describing the invitations as “a slip-up from a staff member who just didn’t recognize the delicacy of the situation.”

He said the organization brought out other supporters to attend DeVos’ hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, as it has done for other congressional testimony and School Choice Week.

In a disclosure form submitted to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, DeVos said she ended her tenure at both the American Federation for Children and the American Federation of Children Action Fund in November. While never registered as a lobbyist, DeVos also disclosed meeting with senators, members of Congress and the public over the 10 years to discuss school choice programs as volunteer chair of AFC.

“She resigned from AFC on 11/22. No questions. End of story,” DeVos family spokesman Greg McNeilly said by email.

“People do things in other people’s names all the time. Fair or unfair. But it is only fair to hold Betsy accountable for what she does.”

AFC has replaced DeVos with another founding board member, Bill Oberndorf, as chairman.

Invited to hearing

Neal, who became superintendent in Grand Rapids five years ago, believed the invitation came from DeVos and was honored to be included, said her spokesman, John Helmholdt. Neal intended to use vacation time for the trip, he said.

“They offered to cover the cost of it. No taxpayer dollars were involved,” Helmholdt said. “Part of it is (DeVos) wanted to make sure that she was surrounded by supporters, and Teresa is a very successful and well-known superintendent.”

Neal was unable to attend the hearing that was rescheduled to Jan. 17 and has no plans to attend the Senate committee’s slated Tuesday vote on DeVos’ nomination, Helmholdt said.

Scott argued Neal should have disclosed that a third-party group was going to pay her way to Washington. While his advocacy group also has helped fund travel, including busing Flint residents to D.C. last year for Gov. Rick Snyder’s congressional testimony on the Flint water crisis, he said they were not public officials like Neal.

“Maybe she loves Betsy, but it makes it appear she’s only saying these nice things because of money and influence, which I think is the DeVos’ M.O.,” Scott said. “What other good fortune is happening based on her publicly speaking out and praising Betsy DeVos?”

In 2010, DeVos helped organize the American Federation for Children, a national group that advocates for school choice policies long championed by DeVos. The AFC “obviously supports her nomination,” Frendeway said.

“We think she’s going to be a qualified and capable secretary of education, and just because she’s no longer chairman doesn’t mean we no longer back her,” he said.

“Bringing someone out to a nomination is hardly news,” Frendeway added. Opponents are “trying to create a story attacking Teresa Neal for her support of Betsy rather than contribute to a debate about how best to serve our kids.”

Also included in the email correspondence is a message from Neal to DeVos on Nov. 28, offering congratulations on DeVos’ nomination as education secretary. Neal added that “if there is ever anything I can do for you, do not hesitate to call me.”

Neal has said that when she first started in her post, the DeVoses reached out to offer assistance, which included paying for a leadership coach in 2012 and 2013 at the cost of $76,000, according to the school district.

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