With DeVos Pick, Trump Declares War on Public Education

Donald Trump announced that Betsy DeVos, a Michigan Republican operative who has been called “the four-star general of the voucher movement,” is his choice to be secretary of education, a fox-guarding-the-chicken-coop appointment if ever there were one. DeVos has been a major proponent of school vouchers and other tax schemes that divert dollars away from public education and into religious schools, private schools, and profitable but ineffective online charter schools. In addition, organizations that she has helped run have been major players in state politics, pouring money into both state legislative campaigns and state lobbying.

The DeVos family’s wealth comes from the direct marketing company Amway, which made Richard DeVos and his wife Helen among the wealthiest people in the United States. In a profile published in March, Inside Philanthropy credits the expansion of voucher programs since 2000 largely to the DeVos family, “which operates three philanthropic foundations and has a remarkable talent for moving money by the truckload into socially conservative causes to shift voters’ and lawmakers’ mindsets in a rightward direction.” The DeVos family has funded major right-wing institutions pushing conservative policies, including the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Council for National Policy, the Acton Institute, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and more.

Betsy, former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, is married to Richard’s son Dick, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in Michigan in 2006. She has been a board member of Advocates for School Choice and headed All Children Matter, which “has pumped contributions into state elections since its inception in 2003.”  She played a central role in All Children Matter, its successor the American Federation for Children and AFC-affiliated state political action committees, like one that raised more than $6 million for the 2010 election cycle in Pennsylvania alone. The American Federation for Children also spent heavily helping Wisconsin Republicans who faced recall elections. AFC is affiliated with the Alliance for School Choice.

Researcher Rachel Tabachnik noted in a 2011 Alternet profile of the DeVos family’s school privatization efforts  that after voucher initiatives were consistently defeated by voters, the DeVos family shifted their strategy to a legislative one, and began spending millions on both campaign contributions and lobbying.

Like many privatization advocates, DeVos has resisted efforts to hold charter schools and non-public schools to the same standards reformers apply to private schools. As Chalkbeat notes, since she and her husband helped get Michigan’s charter school law past, they have “worked to protect charters from additional regulation.” That may be why there has been little action in the state to improve or close low-performing charter schools.

When Michigan lawmakers this year were considering a measure that would have added oversight for charter schools in Detroit, members of the DeVos family poured $1.45 million into legislators’ campaign coffers — an average of $25,000 a day for seven weeks. Oversight was not included in the final legislation.

The DeVos attacks on public education are part of a broader push by right-wing DeVos-funded groups to attack public employee unions. The New York Times reported in 2011 that FreedomWorks was “pushing anti-union legislation in several states, and saw the school choice legislation as part of that larger battle.” A 2014 Mother Jones story detailed the DeVos clan’s anti-union agenda and the hardball it played with its political money to jam through right-to-work legislation. “Nowhere has the family made its presence felt as it has in Michigan, where it has given more than $44 million to the state party, GOP legislative committees, and Republican candidates since 1997.”

DeVos is a board member of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which supports Common Core standards – trashed by Trump on the campaign trail – as well as “school choice.” Betsy has also served on the board of the Acton Institute, which promotes right-wing economics as undergirded by conservative theology.

The Religious Right DeVos family also “gave heavily to efforts to ban same-sex marriage in Michigan” and “helped turn Michigan into a ‘right-wing work’ state. Betsy’s brother Erik Prince, founder of the controversial military contracting company formerly known as Blackwater, is also a right-wing funder; her industrialist father helped found the Family Research Council.