President-elect Donald Trump today named Betsy DeVos, a Michigan billionaire, philanthropist, and conservative advocate for private school voucher programs, as his choice for Secretary of Education, the Associated Press reports.
The president-elect reportedly also met with Michelle Rhee, a Democrat and the former head of public schools in Washington, D.C., before announcing his choice.
I am honored to work with the President-elect on his vision to make American education great again. The status quo in ed is not acceptable.
— Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVos) November 23, 2016
Ms DeVos’s views differ a little from those of Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in that Mrs Clinton has espoused charter schools. While Ms DeVos’s husband, Richard, founded a charter school based on an aviation theme in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and she is considered a charter school advocate, she has also criticized the charter school movement herself, saying “charter schools take a while to start up and get operating.”
Mr Trump promised during the campaign to promote publicly funded but privately managed charter schools, but the huge charter school experiment in Michigan—80 percent of them are run by private corporations, more than any other state—has indeed produced many schools that perform below state averages on standardized tests. As we reported, charter schools have other problems as well, so we’ll watch as this plays out.
But private school vouchers, in support of parents’ right to send their children to a school of their choice, including schools affiliated with a specific religion, which Mr Trump vehemently endorsed on his website, are right up Ms DeVos’s alley. The term “voucher” applies to money directed from tax dollars to somehow support the paying of tuition at a school that charges tuition, and those payments take many different forms, including direct payments to the schools, tax credits for the parents, and education savings plans.
During his campaign, Mr Trump proposed redirecting $20 billion in existing federal money toward vouchers. He could potentially break into about $15 billion in Title I money that is currently earmarked to help schools that serve the country’s poorest children, calling school choice one of the big “civil rights issues of our time.”
Enter Ms DeVos. She’s the chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, an advocacy and research organization that advocates for mechanisms by which the government can enable “school choice” for parents, including vouchers.
On the day after the election, Ms Devos wrote that the election, for both the president and the Senate, vindicated “bold school choice policies” across the nation. The federation “invested in” 112 elections in the country this month and won 89 percent of them, according to a statement. “AFC has already begun to pave the way for bold school choice advancement on the federal level, and we look forward to working with the Trump-Pence Administration and Congress to ensure every child has equal access to a quality school of their parents’ choice,” she wrote.
Her personal résumé includes two stints as head of the Michigan Republican Party: 1996–2000 and 2003–2005. As part of her philanthropic work, she was a powerful advocate for changes in Michigan’s charter school law back in 1993, changes that allowed charter schools to spring up left and right in the state. Some of those schools have been under investigation by the FBI, based on their legal right not to disclose certain records and financial operations.
In fact, the Michigan assembly considered a measure just this year to strengthen the state’s role in overseeing charter schools in Detroit, but Ms DeVos’s family donated about $1.45 million to legislators’ re-election campaigns, averaging $25,000 a day for seven weeks. And what do you know? The final bill had no additional oversight provisions. From this recent support for reducing oversight of private corporations that run “public” schools, we might assume she plans to withdraw some of the oversight functions the US Department of Education now performs.
This hiding of dealings behind a wall of secrecy, a hallmark of the charter movement in the US, is also in line with the way a Trump administration is shaping up. For example, he has chosen to circumvent traditional independent media coverage in many cases, including the release of a video on YouTube outlining a few of his plans for when he takes office and the use of Twitter to post his comments about national matters during his campaign and the transition. News coverage, biased and selective as it may be, has the role of being independent of any ideology.
Ms DeVos is also listed as a “national adviser” for Kids Hope USA, a group that helps church members serve as mentors to at-risk children in their communities through its “One Child, One Hour, One Church, One School” programs. The Washington Post has tied her to the Christian Reformed community. Her listing on Kids Hope USA says she’s also the chairman of the Windquest Group, a Michigan-based, privately-held investment management firm with diversified projects in manufacturing, technology, hospitality, and nonprofit solutions.
For the record, Voxitatis tried to locate any actual teaching experience on Ms DeVos’s part, and we couldn’t find any. She says, on her website, though, that she is “an advocate for children. I’ve been involved with education issues for 28 years. I’ve been on the front lines fighting to make education better for all children.”
Many political opinions have been expressed about her nomination, most of them saying she’s a departure from the hard-line stance many other nominees of the president-elect have brought to the table. This has been echoed by people who know her directly.
“She has a long and distinguished history championing the right of all parents to choose schools that best ensure their children’s success,” wrote former presidential candidate Jeb Bush on Facebook. “Her allegiance is to families, particularly those struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder, not to an outdated public education model that has failed them from one generation to the next. I cannot think of more effective and passionate change agent to press for a new education vision, one in which students, rather than adults and bureaucracies, become the priority in our nation’s classrooms.”
This new education vision, touted in recent years by the right and left alike, must come from the center if it is to succeed in not only turning part of the education establishment over to private corporations but of improving the quality of public schools in the US.
“I wouldn’t consider her to be right wing,” the Post quoted Rich Mouw, a former president of Fuller Seminary who once served on a committee with Ms DeVos at the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, as saying. “She’s a classic free-enterprise conservative. She takes public life, art and politics very seriously.”
Her family’s contributions to the arts have reached epic proportions. She and her husband gave $22.5 million to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington in 2010, which was, at the time, the largest private donation in the center’s history.
Her support for vouchers may be motivated by her experience working with Christian schools, and that has raised concern from religious groups and from advocates of a distinct separation between church and state.
“Americans are always free to send their children to private schools and religious schools, but raiding the public treasury to subsidize private businesses and religious organizations runs against the public trust and the Constitution,” the Post quoted Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, as saying. “It suggests that [Mr Trump] has little regard for our nation’s public schools or the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.”