To understand Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, it is helpful to know about her background and her agenda. Amazingly, it does not directly flow from her boss, Donald J. Trump.
Her life has been one of wealth through her own family and the one she married into. Her father was a billionaire; her husband is a billionaire (her husband’s father started Amway).
Fun fact: her brother is Erik Prince of Blackwater notoriety; that’s the private security contracting firm accused of both overbilling and human rights abuses during the Iraq War.
Key to understanding DeVos’ thinking on education are her deep roots to her church, the Christian Reformed Church, and its beliefs about society:
Eleven years after the first Seceders came to Holland, one-third of the Dutch community broke off from the Reformed Church in America and created the Christian Reformed Church. What solidified this split were disagreements over education, according to James D. Bratt, a professor emeritus at Calvin College and the author of Dutch Calvinism in Modern America. Members who stayed in the Reformed Church in America supported public schools. Christian Reformed Church members believed education was solely the responsibility of families—and explicitly not the government—and sent their kids to religious schools.
Many church members became staunch opponents of unions by the time New Deal-era legislation protected the right to strike and allowed for collective bargaining. They viewed it as socialist intrusions that diminished the authority of the church and contributed to bigger government.
In 2001, DeVos listed education activism and reform efforts as a means to “advance God’s Kingdom.”
Neither she nor her children went to any public schools, not K-12 nor college.
Oddly, in her official government biography, it is stated about her interest in education:
“(It) grew when she sent her own children to school and was confronted with the reality that not every child in America is granted an equal opportunity to receive a great education.
It’s perplexing how – if her children were in private school or being homeschooled – that DeVos could know much about what was happening in public schools.
She is hard-core GOP and has been for decades.
DeVos has spent decades in GOP leadership. She was the head of the Republican Party in Michigan and the Republican National Committeewoman for Michigan.
All told, the DeVoses have contributed at least $7 million to lawmakers and the Michigan state Republican Party in recent years. Their influence can be seen in just about every major piece of education-related legislation in Michigan since the 1990s.
From Vanity Fair:
While other far-right mega-donors may have become better known over the years (the Coorses and the Kochs, Sheldon Adelson and the Mercers), Michigan’s DeVos dynasty stands apart—for the duration, range, and depth of its influence.
Her family has donated millions to different candidates, including George W. Bush. Interestingly, it does not appear she ever donated to Trump’s campaign.
In fact, here’s what DeVos herself had to say about political spending:
“My family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party. I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right.”
Her philosophy on public education is that it shouldn’t really exist.
DeVos calls public schools “stagnant” and “failing.” She has stated that education is “a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. It’s a monopoly, a dead end.”
Her belief is that education should be a private choice and therefore should be handled by the private sector. This, coupled with her hatred of unions, tells you all you need to know about the direction she wants for U.S. public education.
In a 2018 article in Vanity Fair, Samuel Abrams, director of Columbia University’s National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education explains:
“There is a method here—or, more precisely, a mission. DeVos has used her position as a “bully pulpit” to advance the belief that “society doesn’t exist; only individuals and families.” We accordingly should not be surprised that she has pushed for minimum standards at public school and cut funds for everything from career and technical education to teenage pregnancy prevention. For libertarians, she’s a godsend. For the rest of us, she’s a wrecking ball.”
For someone not personally participating in public education, she and her husband certainly made it their special interest in Michigan from the ’90s on.
The DeVos’ philanthropic record makes clear that they view choice and competition as the best mechanisms to improve America’s education system.
The couple has said that they are for public education in the sense that dollars should be spent but they are not for “government-run schools” aka public schools.
They love charter schools — but the record in Michigan?
Despite two decades of charter-school growth, the state’s overall academic progress has failed to keep pace with other states. Michigan ranks near the bottom for fourth- and eighth-grade math and fourth-grade reading on a nationally representative test, nicknamed the “Nation’s Report Card.” Notably, the state’s charter schools scored worse on that test than their traditional public-school counterparts, according to an analysis of federal data.
Her real push is the idea of vouchers – giving parents a sum of public dollars so they can go out and find the education they choose for their child.
The methodology towards implementing vouchers started in some states as grants for parents with disabled students. But then the thought was if this is good for those students, why not ALL students?
She never supported Donald Trump.
Initially, in the 2016 presidential election, DeVos had been for Jeb Bush, who she knew thru his work on public education as governor of Florida. She also gave money to Carly Fiorina and then finally landed on Marco Rubio. It seemed she wanted to support anyone but Donald Trump.
In March 2016, DeVos described Donald Trump as an “interloper” and said that he “does not represent the Republican Party.”
But it appears she and Trump had a come to Jesus moment, and she came around.
From the beginning, there was virtually no one who thought she was qualified to be Secretary of Education. Except Trump.
Her confirmation hearings were a near-disaster.
- She suggested that guns might have a place in some schools due to a threat from grizzly bears in some states.
- She and her husband are chief investors in and board members of Neurocore, a group of brain performance centers offering biofeedback therapy for disorders such as depression, attention deficit disorder, autism, and anxiety. Democratic senators raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest and questioned whether she and her family members would “benefit financially from actions” she could take as the U.S. Secretary of Education.
- Senator Al Franken of Minnesota attempted to get her thoughts on grade-level proficiency versus yearly progress, and it became apparent she didn’t really know the topic, which is one of the hottest ones in public education today.
- She stated that she thought states should decide on the spending of federal dollars for disabled students even though there is a law protecting those students and those federal dollars for their education.
In becoming the 11th Secretary of Education, DeVos had a first – her confirmation was the first where the Vice-President had to vote to break a 50-50 tie. Meaning several Republicans voted against her.
DeVos got very busy in her early years as Secretary.
- In February 2017, she made a public statement about HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) saying that they were “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” This caused a stir when it was pointed out that the colleges and universities came into being because of laws that prevented African-American students from attending white colleges and universities.
- In April 2017, she reversed some Obama policies designed to protect student loan borrowers.
- In June 2017, speaking before a House Appropriations Committee, she stated that states’ rights would determine the amount of allocated funds for private schools. However, she would not affirm that she would support a program banning discrimination of LGBTQ students or discrimination based on religion.
- On July 2017, Democratic attorneys-general in 18 states and Washington, D.C., led by Massachusetts attorney-general Maura Healey, filed a federal lawsuit against DeVos for suspending the implementation of rules that were meant to protect students attending for-profit colleges.
- In October 2017, DeVos revoked 72 guidance documents of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, which outlined the rights of disabled students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
- In March 2018, on 60 Minutes, DeVos gave an interview that can only be described as a deer in headlights. Reporter Lesley Stahl went over the issues in Michigan public education, pressing DeVos to name actual improvements. DeVos could only lamely say there were “pockets of improvement.”
- In that same 60 Minutes interview, Stahl asked about DeVos’ efforts to change Title IX reporting on sexual assaults at colleges and universities. DeVos stated:
“Survivors, victims of a lack of due process, and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved.”
Survivors of sexual assault/harassment and many groups that serve them say the changes would make reporting at schools more difficult and more dangerous.
- In June 2018, under questioning after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, she told Congress that firearms would not be a topic studied by her own school-safety committee, created post-Parkland. Democratic senator Patrick Leahy pressed her, “”So you’re studying gun violence but not considering the roles of guns?”
- In September 2018 DeVos lost the lawsuit brought by 19 states and the District of Columbia, which accused the Department of Education of improperly delaying the implementation of regulations protecting student loan borrowers from predatory practices.
- In May 2019, DeVos unsuccessfully attempted to cut federal funding for the Special Olympics from her department’s budget, which she had also attempted to cut in her previous two annual budgets.
To know Betsy DeVos is to worry about the future of public education in our country.