Vallas backed by PAC founded by former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

The political committee’s contribution is a drop in the bucket of dollars pouring into the race in its final days. But it’s an indication that school privatization champions see an opportunity with Vallas’ candidacy.

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Chicago mayoral candidate and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas walks to the mic during a press conference at Vallas’ campaign headquarters in the West Loop, Friday, March 3, 2023, where Gery Chico endorsed Vallas for mayor. Vallas is running against Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson in the mayoral runoff. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago mayoral candidate and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas received backing from prominent school choice advocates, including the Republican-funded American Federation for Children.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

An education lobbying and advocacy group founded by former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and funded by Republican donors is backing Paul Vallas’ campaign for mayor.

The Illinois Federation for Children PAC is an affiliate of the American Federation for Children, a conservative 501(c)(4) group that calls itself “the nation’s leading school choice organization.”

The PAC reported sending $59,385 late last week to Virginia-based GOP political consulting firm Go BIG Media and designated the funds for digital media work in support of Vallas’ campaign, according to campaign finance records.

The contribution is a drop in the bucket of dollars pouring into the race in its final days ahead of Tuesday’s runoff election. And the PAC’s backing of Vallas isn’t a big surprise given that his name is synonymous with the school choice movement and his campaign has repeatedly promoted privately managed but publicly funded charter schools and private school vouchers.

But the funding is a further indication that school privatization champions, including big-money Republican donors, see an opportunity to reenter Chicago’s educational landscape if Vallas wins after the movement plateaued in the city over the last decade. Vallas has already received financial backing from charter school interests.

A Vallas spokesman said his campaign “would strongly reject any endorsement from Betsy DeVos.”

“Our campaign has not been in contact with this organization, we have certainly not sought its support,” the spokesman said in a statement. “Campaigns cannot coordinate activities with independent expenditure committees by law, and we have no control over this group’s actions.”

DeVos, who has not endorsed Vallas, founded the American Federation for Children and chaired it until Trump nominated her as Education Secretary in late 2016. She hasn’t led the group since, but she continued speaking at its events after her departure and there were lingering questions about her coordination with it. She and her husband continue to be among the group’s biggest funders.

The American Federation for Children created its Illinois Federation for Children PAC as an independent expenditure committee in March 2022 to support and oppose candidates for statewide office, all with the mission of advancing school choice. The political committee spent over $700,000 toward those efforts last year on Republican candidates for the Illinois Legislature. The PAC lists a Washington, D.C., address.

“Every single one of Illinois’s students deserves the same opportunities to seek the education that is best for them — not the one that’s best for school district bureaucracies or teachers’ unions,” the Illinois Federation for Children PAC’s website says. “This election cycle will be one of the most important in the history of Illinois’s school choice movement. The 2022 elections give us the opportunity to strengthen and expand high-quality educational options all across Illinois, and we will need your help to do it!”

The Illinois Federation for Children PAC is chaired by Nathan Hoffman, who was a registered American Federation for Children lobbyist in Springfield until January. He has tweeted from Vallas’ February election night party and fundraising events since then. Lisa Lisker is listed as the treasurer. She’s the president of Virginia-based law firm Huckaby Davis Lisker, which “provides financial and professional services to Republican Members of Congress, GOP campaign and party committees, political action committees, and other non-profit and nonfederal committees.”

Jim Walton, a billionaire heir to the Walmart-owning Walton family fortune, helped kick off the Illinois Federation for Children PAC with a $200,000 contribution last April followed by another $100,000 in September. He became a sponsoring entity for the PAC in October. The Walton family has been one of the biggest school choice backers in the country. Most of the PAC’s funding comes from the American Federation for Children Action Fund, the parent organization’s campaign arm.

The American Federation for Children is still chaired by DeVos’ successor, Bill Oberndorf, a billionaire Republican megadonor who most recently made headlines for backing the successful recall of former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a progressive, reform-oriented prosecutor. He has heavily backed school choice candidates over the years, including a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in California.

American Federation for Children is a 501(c)(4) organization, similar to a nonprofit 501(c)(3) except for its unlimited ability to lobby for issues aligned with the group’s mission. Other board members include former Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Democratic Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.

American Federation for Children representatives didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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