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What Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary Might Look Like

November 21, 2016


Since last Wednesday, it has been announced that Donald Trump included Betsy DeVos as a potential nominee for Secretary of Education.

Dozens of news sources have affirmed the possible Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education nomination. Betsy DeVos, who is married to Dick DeVos, is the sister of former Blackwater CEO, Eric Prince.

Many people in West Michigan have contacted me with this announcement wondering what it would mean for Betsy DeVos to have a more direct education policy role to play if she was given the job of Secretary of Education and this article is meant as a response to such questions.

However, in addition to looking at what it might mean to have Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, it is important that we also look at how the news has framed the potential nomination and what background has been provided into the role that Betsy DeVos has played nationally on the privatization of public education.

How the News Media frames a possible DeVos as Education Secretary

There have been dozens of news stories with the Trump announcement of a possible Betsy DeVos appointment as Education Secretary. Some of those stories have come from Michigan sources, as would be expected,  but there have also been news stories from DC-based sources.screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-5-06-46-am

The Hill on November 15 has the following commentary about Betsy DeVos.  

DeVos is a billionaire GOP donor, and her family has been a mainstay in party politics for decades. She once served as the head of the Michigan Republican Party and is the current chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, an education advocacy group pushing school-choice-friendly policies.

The DeVos family made its wealth by helping found the direct-selling company Amway. And while the family has given millions to Republican causes, it was not an early Trump backer.

A source familiar with DeVos’s thinking said that while she originally supported Common Core standards at the state level — and funded a group, the Great Lakes Education Project, that promoted such standards — she opposed Common Core once it became federalized.

The Washington Times provided a brief comment on November 19, stating:  

At the private golf club, Mr. Trump has meetings scheduled with former D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee and school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos, who are considered in the running for secretary of education in the Trump administration.

Of all the DC beltway sources, the Washington Examiner provides the most substantive coverage, providing some background information, an interview between Philanthropy magazine and DeVos, along with the video here that provides some interesting insights into how Betsy DeVos frames her work in education, where she talks patronizingly about poor families, how her organization changes policy at the state level and how education that is within the context of the marketplace is the most effective way to teach children today. 

Closer to home there has been plenty of stories, but with limited information. The best story to date has been a Detroit Free Press article, which at least provides some basics into Betsy DeVos’ interest in education policy and at least mentions two of the main groups she is part of, the American Federation for Children and the Great Lakes Education Project. This was also the first article that made it clear how school voucher programs would be funded, by stating, vouchers that would allow students to attend private schools at public expense.

There was a second Detroit News article, but most of it was spent on getting the perspective of the Michigan GOP Chairman, Saul Anuzis.

Lastly, there have been a few MLive articles on the possible Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, with the most substantive piece written by Brian McVicar. However, the McVicar article is still quite limited and provides no analysis of what DeVos and the organizations she is part of are working on in regards to dismantling public education. 

Why is Trump interested in Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary?

One of the political arenas that Dick & Betsy DeVos have distinguished themselves in is their interest in promoting private schools, charter schools and school voucher policies.

Schools and non-public school campaigns have received sizable amounts of funding from the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation between 2008 and 2010. Groups such as the Alliance for School Choice ($50,000), the Educational Freedom Fund ($305,000) and the Florida School Choice Fund are just some of the anti-public school groups to receive money from the couple’s foundation.screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-3-42-49-pm

Researcher Rachel Tabachnick identifies Betsy DeVos as the Four Star General of the School Privatization Movement, in an article she wrote for the Political Research Associates. The article states:

Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State described Betsy DeVos as the “four-star general” of the school privatization movement shortly after DeVos announced the formation of the “new” American Federation for Children (AFC) in March 2010. As Boston noted, the American Federation for Children was not new, but a rebranding of an organization called Advocates for School Choice.

The American Federation for Children is now the umbrella organization for two nonprofits that have been at the center of the pro-privatization movement for over a decade. In addition to the renamed Advocates for School Choice, it includes the Alliance for School Choice, formerly known as the Education Reform Council. Both entities received extensive funding from the late John Walton, one of the Wal-Mart heirs. The boards of the two related entities included movement leaders Betsy DeVos–scion of a Christian Right family who married into the Amway home goods fortune–William Oberndorf, Clint Bolick, John Kirtley, Steve Friess (son of Foster Friess), James Leininger, John Walton, and Cory Booker.

These two nonprofits–Alliance for School Choice, a 501(c)(3) and Advocates for School Choice a.k.a. American Federation for Children, a 501(c)(4)– provided over $17 million in grants to 35 other national and state-level pro-privatization nonprofits from 2006 to 2010. These grants represented a significant portion of the total budgets for many of the state organizations. Today Betsy DeVos and John Kirtley are the chair and vice chair of both boards.

Dick DeVos has his own history with pushing for privatization of public schools, a subject we looked at in an article written after DeVos commented that the Grand Rapids Public Schools might need some attention. Even though Betsy might be the new Secretary of Education, her husband would certainly play a role, along with both the DeVos and Prince families.

In 2002, Dick DeVos gave a speech to the conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. In that speech DeVos lays out a strategy for attacking and undermining public education. Here is a video of that speech:

“That has got to be the battle. It will not be as visible. And, in fact, to the extent that we on the right, those of us on the conservative side of the aisle, appropriate education choice as our idea, we need to be a little bit cautious about doing that, because we have here an issue that cuts in a very interesting way across our community and can cut, properly communicated, properly constructed, can cut across a lot of historic boundaries, be they partisan, ethnic, or otherwise.”                  Dick DeVos

The Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation is also an important indication of where the couple provides funding to undermine public education. First, there is the DC-based entity called the Alliance for School Choice. In 2013, they contributed $250,000 to this group, which promotes the privatization of public education.

Another anti-public education source for DeVos philanthropy is the Foundation for Excellence in Education ($100,000 in 2013). Betsy DeVos sits on the board of directors, along with Condoleezza Rice and the board president, Jeb Bush.screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-3-46-36-pm

Lastly, there is the Great Lakes Education Foundation, which has also received substantial funding from the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation. ($200,000 alone in 2013) The Great Lakes Education Foundation is a source of funding that supports the Great Lakes Education Project, of which Betsy DeVos is also a board member, along with the DeVos political operative, Greg McNeilly.

Then there are the funds the DeVos family has contributed directly to the Great Lakes Education Project which received $250,000 from the DeVos family on July 15 of this year.screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-4-38-17-pm

Betsy DeVos is one of the four board members of the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP). The GLEP is part of a larger national network of organizations that are working to undermine public education. The GLEP is the primary entity work on undermining public education in Michigan and has most recently played a critical role in state policy decisions on the future of Detroit schools

DeVos funding of the Great Lakes Education Project just paid off in the most recent election. GLEP announced that 49 of 53 candidates endorsed by the education advocacy group were successful in yesterday’s general election for the Michigan House of Representatives. GLEP-endorsed candidates winning yesterday include 25 re-elected incumbents and 24 new legislators.

Betsy DeVos would certainly fit in the new Trump administration, despite the fact that no one in the DeVos camp gave money directly to the Trump campaign. And even if the Trump administration decides to pick someone else, you can bet that Betsy DeVos will play a role in helping to craft federal policy in the same way she has played a critical role in forming education policy in many states throughout the country.

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