Profile: Who is Betsy DeVos?

You’ve probably heard in the news by now that Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the Education Secretary for Trump’s Cabinet. I would like to use this blog post to give a wider view of DeVos’s positions in education.

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Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Credit: Michigan Paul Sancya/AP

Background

Betsy DeVos has been active in politics for more than 35 years. As a philanthropist, activist, and Republican fund-raiser, she’s advocated for families to receive taxpayer money in the form of vouchers so they may attend schools of their choosing.

Her educational service background includes, serving as chairwoman for the American Federation for Children (AFC), the nation’s leading school for choice advocacy group. She also was chairwoman for the Windquest Group, a group that her and her husband founded in 1989. Betsy has also served on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an organization that regularly mentors at-risk elementary students with adult mentors.

Devos’s Relationship with Education

DeVos’s record in education has primarily been advocating ‘school choice’. The DeVoses have been the biggest financial and political backers of this effort. According to Mother Jones, DeVos has been connected to vouchers and has contributed millions of dollars to charter, private, and religious schools. She’s also been connected to conservative Christian groups like the Foundation for Traditional Values (who’ve advocated for a position that blurs the separation of church and state).

Mother Jones also analyzed Betsy and her husband Dick’s Family Foundation tax filings from 2001-2014. What they discovered was that the Devoses spent close to $100 million in philanthropic giving. The Devoses donated large amounts of money to health research, hospitals, and art organizations. But the tax filings also showed that a staggering amount of that money went towards Christian schools, evangelical missions, and conservative, free-market think tanks (institutions and centers that want to shrink the public sector – like public education).

The DeVoses philanthropic record also show where they stand when it comes to education. Their foundation gave $5.2 million (from 1999-2014) to charter schools and some $4.8 million went to a small charter school the couple founded. DeVos and her husband have also funded and served on boards with organizations including: Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, the Foundation for Traditional Values, and Focus on the Family.

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Credit: Mother Jones

Why Does This Matter?

In the last few decades, Betsy DeVos has advocated and pushed for taxpayer-funded vouchers for privates schools. She’s pushed it to the center of the Republican Party’s agenda for education. This is concerning considering she is the Secretary (for all) of Education now.

To many conservatives, DeVos has received praise for her push for vouchers and charter schools. Former Gov. Jeb Bush said this about DeVos, “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”.

But unfortunately, others are not exactly thrilled about DeVoses appointment. Her biggest opponent – teachers’ unions. The New York Times spoke with Randi Weingarten, who’s the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said, “[Ms. DeVos is] the most ideological, anti-public education nominee.”

Others worry that the Trump administration may attempt to undermine the public school systems. The New York Times noted that Trump even proposed, during his campaign, to give $20 billion in federal funds to vouchers. Families can use the vouchers to pay for private schooling. Trump even called education reform as the, “the civil rights issues of our time.”

What’s also concerning is how unfamiliar DeVos is with laws protecting students with disabilities and the metrics for assessing student progress. She also has no experience with student loans and financial aid which is run by the Department of Education.

With the lack of knowledge and her poor appearance during her Senate hearing, DeVos’s nomination was in jeopardy when two Republican senators – Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – announced that they would not vote for DeVos. Ms. Murkowski made a statement on the senate floor, “I have serious concerns about a nominee to be secretary of education who has been so involved in one side of the equation, so immersed in the push for vouchers, that she may be unaware of what actually is successful within the public schools, and what is broken and how to fix them.”

It should set off alarms that someone who’s had little experience in public education is now in charge of the entire education system. I hope DeVos can be an advocate for all education, not just private, but this doesn’t seem likely. She has stated that she believes that public education is a “dead-end”, which is hardly the case.

Yes, there are issues with public education but that’s what the Department of Education is there for, to create a qualified education system. The Secretary of Education’s job is create national standards for all education. To call it a dead-end and find an alternative solution, through vouchers, private education, and charter schools, will only put the future of public education in jeopardy.

To read further on DeVos, public education, and ‘school choice’ I highly encourage you to read this  Mother Jones article. The article goes into detail on DeVos’s spending, and how charter schools in Michigan (her home state) are compared to public schools.

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