Many people had never heard of Betsy DeVos when President-elect Donald Trump nominated the Republican fundraiser and billionaire for education secretary on Nov. 23. Mariya Strauss, who has done extensive research on the DeVos family and its ambitious political agenda, says “the DeVoses are not the run-of-the-mill charter school advocates you may be familiar with.”
Strauss, a former researcher for Political Research Associates, a think tank based in Boston, cautions against confusing Betsy DeVos with a Michelle Rhee (former head of D.C. public schools and StudentsFirst) or even an Eva Moskowitz (founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools). The DeVoses, she says, are “interested in the full dismantling of public schools in favor of religious and private schools.”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called DeVos “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee” in the 40-year history of the cabinet secretary position.
If her appointment is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, DeVos will be responsible for enacting Trump’s signature education proposal to use $20 billion in federal funding — perhaps by siphoning the $15 billion in Title I funds that go to public schools serving the country’s poorest children — for block grants to states to support vouchers for low-income children to attend private schools.
Trump envisions the states kicking in $110 billion from their own coffers in order to provide a voucher worth about $12,000 for every school-aged child in poverty in the nation, but it is unclear if he will be able to control how the states, which provide the lion’s share of education funding, manage their own budgets.
‘Purchased their way to power’
Betsy DeVos is the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party; her husband Dick DeVos is a former president of Amway, a company built on conservative Christian beliefs and free-market ideology. They have been prodigious fundraisers for Republican candidates who support their vision of small government, anti-union right-to-work laws and the end of public education. According to Mother Jones, the DeVos family has invested at least $200 million in various right-wing causes since 1970.
“They have essentially purchased their way to power,” said Lonnie Scott, the executive director of Progress Michigan, a nonpartisan watchdog organization.
Betsy DeVos has wielded the power of the purse as chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, a foundation funded with her family’s Amway fortune. She also heads a political-action group called All Children Matter that is dedicated to electing politicians who support steering students and money away from “failing government schools” to the private sector.
Michael Petrilli, a veteran of George W. Bush’s Education Department who now runs the right-wing Thomas B. Fordham Institute, praised DeVos on his blog for pushing “the private school choice movement to invest in serious political giving much earlier than the mainstream reform groups did and, so far, with far greater success.”
DeVos has tried to influence education policy here in New York State, too. Her American Federation for Children gave a total of $337,500 between 2013 and 2014 to corporate education reform super PACs, including the Coalition for Opportunity in Education, which have plowed millions of dollars into the unsuccessful bid to prod Albany lawmakers to pass an education tax credit that would give huge tax breaks to wealthy donors to private schools.
“New Yorkers have already said no to her brand of school privatization,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew.
Michigan voters handed DeVos a rare defeat in 2000, when they rejected a ballot initiative she spearheaded to establish vouchers in the state. But the 2016 election was a different story: Her group spent $5 million to support 121 school-choice candidates around the country; 108 won.
Yet in Michigan, where DeVos has been an ardent supporter of the unlimited, unregulated growth of charter schools, the school system is in freefall.
‘The DeVos influence’
The state sends $1 billion in taxpayer dollars to charter schools annually, yet the state has one of the nation’s weakest charter oversight systems, according to the Education Trust–Midwest. Last spring, DeVos’ group led opposition to state legislation that would have prevented failing charter schools from expanding or replicating. Eighty percent of the state’s charter schools are run by for-profit organizations, a far higher share than the national average.
“Public schools are starved as charter schools are promoted,” said Scott from Progress Michigan. “The laws allow the state to shut down public schools that are failing, while charters can reconstitute themselves. That’s the DeVos influence.”
Detroit is the most poignant example: Charter schools have multiplied, but few have succeeded. Detroit’s public school test scores in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have been the worst for seven years straight among the 20 large cities participating in the Trial Urban District Assessment.
Although Moskowitz applauded the DeVos nomination, the charter community has not been unanimous in its support. “As one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system, [DeVos] is partly responsible for what even charter advocates acknowledge is the biggest school reform disaster in the country,” wrote Douglas N. Harris, a professor of economics at Tulane University who is studying New Orleans’ all-charter school system, in a New York Times op-ed.
Betsy DeVos and her husband also led the audacious effort in Michigan, once a union stronghold, to pass legislation to ban unions from collecting fair-share fees from non-union workers who are covered by the union contract. These so-called “right-to-work” laws, now enacted in 26 states, have weakened the labor movement by attacking the financial structure of unions. Michigan’s right-to-work bill became law in 2012.
“They helped usher in right-to-work laws in Michigan,” said Scott.
Education historian Diane Ravitch speculated that the Trump administration could tie federal funding to the willingness of states to promote charters and vouchers in the same way that President Obama used federal Race to the Top education grants to pressure states to tie teacher evaluation to student test scores.
“What’s scary is they could do it with Title I and special education funding,” Ravitch said, referring to the two biggest pots of federal education dollars. “DeVos will be a disaster for public education.”