Who's DeVos? A Closer Look at Trump's Choice for U.S. Secretary of Education
NOTE: The American Civil Liberties Union does not support or oppose candidates for elected or appointive office.
In November, President-elect Donald Trump chose conservative Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos--a woman with a long history as an advocate for voucher schemes and for-profit charter schools--as his nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education. DeVos' confirmation hearing has been set for Jan. 17.
To help get a clearer picture of the nominee ahead of the hearing, the ACLU of Michigan has put together this exhaustive look at DeVos, her work and the education causes she's supported. You can also check out our timeline tracing the DeVos family's rise to prominence in state education circles and how DeVos, her husband and other relatives have wielded their vast wealth to promote their causes.
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On Jan. 17, billionaire Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education, is slated to appear before Congress for her confirmation hearing. We are calling on congressional leaders to examine closely DeVos' long history as a champion of numerous causes that promote public funding for religious education and the for-profit education industry, from the millions of dollars she and her family have poured in voucher campaigns to their deep-pocketed support of the wildly expanding charter school network in Michigan that has done little to improve state educational outcomes.
As Education Secretary, DeVos would be tasked with developing and overseeing most federal assistance to public schools, and with enforcing federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights. She would be empowered to exercise discretionary control over aspects of civil rights policy, such as the outgoing Secretary’s guidance that students be allowed to access the school restroom that best fits their gender identity. Also, the Secretary has influence over the development of education and civil rights policy and sits at the center of debates over the separation of church and state and affirmative-action.
Given these responsibilities, we are deeply concerned about--among many other issues--DeVos' ongoing efforts to divert taxpayer money to private and parochial schools; her well-funded efforts to expand to fund unaccountable charter schools that lack transparency and the kind of oversight provided by democratically elected school boards; and her steadfast opposition to teachers' unions.
"We strongly urge Congress to scrutinize the record of Betsy DeVos, who has been a staunch proponent of school vouchers, a misguided idea that diverts taxpayer dollars into private and parochial schools and perverts the bedrock American value of separation of church and state," said ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss. "She and her husband served as the primary fundraisers and engine for a Michigan ballot initiative --Kids First! Yes! Coalition that voters soundly rejected in 2000.
"She has ardently supported the unlimited, unregulated growth of charter schools in Michigan, elevating for-profit schools with no consideration of the severe harm done to traditional public schools. She’s done this despite overwhelming evidence that proves that charters do no better at educating children than traditional public schools and serve only to exacerbate funding problems for cash-strapped public districts. We believe that all children have a right to a quality public education, and we fear that Betsy DeVos’ relentless advocacy of charter schools and vouchers betrays these principles."
America's schoolchildren, teachers and administrators deserve an Education Secretary who is deeply committed to protecting and serving all students--regardless of their religion, race, class, or sexual- or gender-orientation--and who will strengthen our public school system while guaranteeing that every child has access to a quality education.
In her confirmation hearings, Betsy DeVos should seek to demonstrate that she is truly committed to working diligently to achieve these goals.
DeVos was born into a family of conservative philanthropists and activists. Her father, Edgar Prince, co-founded the Family Research Council; her mother, Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, contributed $450,000 to defeat the passage of a marriage equality measure in California. Her brother, Erik Prince, founded Blackwater USA, a controversial private military company.
She went to Calvin College, earning a business degree and BA in Political Science, and began her involvement in national politics working for Gerald Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign.
In the 1979, Betsy married Dick DeVos, Amway heir and 2006 Republican nominee for Governor.
She currently serves as chair of Windquest Group, a privately held group investing in tech, manufacturing and clean energy started in 1989.
She has served on the boards of numerous business, nonprofit and political organizations, including the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, which was begun in 1989 and is centered in cultivating change in five areas including education.
II. General Political Activity
According to a Mother Jones article, the DeVoses have invested at least $200 million in conservative causes over the years, and have helped fund numerous prominent Republicans running for national office for decades. Extreme partisans, they have given more than $44 million to the Michigan Republican Party, GOP legislative committee, and Republican candidates since 1997.
Dick DeVos was Republican National Committee finance chairman in 1980 during the Reagan presidential election cycle. Betsy has held positions in the Republican Party from 1982, serving as National Committeewoman for MI between 1992-97, and Chair of the MI Republican Party from 1996-2000. She resigned in 2000 because then Gov. John Engler opposed her school-voucher proposal. She ran again in 2003 when Democratic Governor Granholm was elected and won without opposition
The DeVoses were active in the 2004 Bush reelection campaign, during Bush administration she spent two years as Finance Chairman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and worked for the administration on various “projects.”
Among her involvement in numerous national, conservation organizations, she served on the board of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty and was Finance Chair for the American Dream PAC.
In Michigan during this election cycle, the Detroit Free Press reported that the DeVoses showered state legislative candidates with “near-unprecedented amounts of money, $1.45 million in June and July alone—over a seven-week period, an average of $25,000 a day” in a successful attempt to stop legislative efforts to boost oversight of charter schools.
The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation alone contributes millions of dollars to Christian schools, anti-abortion groups and other foundations and religious-based groups that attack everything from feminism to homosexuality. In 1997, it gave more than $3.7 million to just one group, the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., a major conservative political player that, as one news account observed, advances the philosophy that "America was established for the glorification of God and the advancement of the Christian faith."
III. Advocacy for School Vouchers
Betsy and Dick DeVos served as the primary fundraisers and engine for a Michigan ballot initiative --Kids First! Yes! Coalition --in 2000 that would have amended the state constitution to allow public financing of private secular and religious schools. It was defeated by Michigan voters. The citizen’s initiative failed, with 68% of Michigan voters rejecting.
In 2000, the DeVos clan spent $5 million in a failed effort to change Michigan's constitution to allow for public funding of private and parochial schools. Voters defeated the measure by a margin of more than 2 to 1.
On the economic front, the appeal of vouchers for fiscal conservatives has been on the map since at least the early 1960s, when economist Milton Friedman wrote Capitalism and Freedom. As noted by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Alex Molnar, Friedman was the first to posit that vouchers were a "way of getting the government out of public education." In his view, an educational market would be much more efficient at allocating educational resources than a system of government-run schools. Going back further, vouchers were first used as an attempt to preserve school segregation in the South during the Jim Crow era.
Approximately 85 percent of Michigan’s private schools have religious affiliations.
IV. Great Lakes Education Project, All Children Matter, and American Federation of Children
Great Lakes Education Project
Following the defeat of the voucher effort in 2000, DeVos started the Great Lakes Education Project, a 501(c)(4) advocacy organization where she and her husband have both served as chairs of the board of advisors.
Greg Brock, the campaign manager for Kids First! Yes!, which pushed the failed 2000 voucher initiative, managed the group’s day to day operations in the early years.
In 2002 Dick DeVos gave a speech on school choice at the Heritage Foundation, describing a system of rewards and ‘consequences’ to pressure state politicians to support vouchers and described Betsy’s role in putting this idea into practice in Michigan.
The organization advocates for reform by pushing legislation and other reform initiatives through lobbying activities, public information campaigns, endorsements, and significant financial support of pro-reform candidates. Candidate support can be substantial, including not just direct campaign contributions but also independent spending in support of or opposition to particular candidates. Recent examples include:
The “Got Literacy” campaign: to improve early literacy, supports HB 4822 a K-3 Reading bill which would require public and charter schools to retain third graders who do not score adequately on proficiency exams and put in place other intensive interventions for students reading behind grade level.
“Education Innovation Zone”: a reform plan for the Detroit Public School system to replace those schools and other low performing schools in SE Michigan with charter schools.
Prior to this, the group actively opposed the creation of a Detroit Education Commission which would have regulated the for-profit charter school sector and oversee the creation of new schools.
Campaign in support of the Common Core Standards in Michigan.
The group defines school choice as: “Full choice for students and parents includes, but is not limited to: meaningful public school choice, charter public schools, virtual charter schools, home schooling, Education Savings Accounts, scholarship tax credit programs, and school vouchers.”
GLEP also lists as a goal to “to recruit, train and fund candidates for elected office in Michigan.”
In the most recent election, GLEP announced that 49 of 53 candidates endorsed by the group were successful in the general election for the Michigan House of Representatives. The candidates included 25 re-elected incumbents and 24 new legislators.
All Children Matter
A related organization, founded in 2003, is All Children Matter, self-described as “a bi-partisan, non-profit advocacy organization supporting quality choices in public education for all Michigan students,” with a stated mission “to improve academic achievement, increase accountability and empower parental choice in our public schools.”
Media reports identify that the organization spent $7.6 million in its first year, impacting elections in 10 targeted states with a win/loss record of 121/60. According to Alternet, the organization was fined $5.2 million in Ohio for breaking campaign finance laws and lost an appeal in early 2010. The organization was also fined in Wisconsin and other states for failing to register their PAC.
Currently, the organization consists of: the Great Lakes Education Project, a 527 Political Action Committee; the Great Lakes Education Foundation, a c(3) education entity; and the GLEP Education Fund, a c(4) advocacy organization.
American Federation for Children
In 2010 DeVos launched the American Federation for Children (the “AFC”), a 501(c)(4) national advocacy organization promoting school choice, school vouchers and scholarship tax credit programs. It is affiliated with the Alliance for School Choice.
The AFC has been instrumental in encouraging state legislatures to pass voucher bills and legislation related to school choice. The organization has regional offices across the country, and has provided grants to the School Choice Indiana Network, Boast Alliance Maryland, and Partners for Educational Freedom in North Carolina.
The AFC’s biggest successes have been in:
Georgia, where it helped reinstate a commission that authorized charter schools,
Virginia, where it helped pass legislation calling for scholarship tax credits,
Wisconsin where it helped create a voucher program for children with special needs, and
Florida, which thanks to its tax credit scholarship program has over 50,000 students attending their school of choice.
The organization is also supporting similar changes in Louisiana and Indiana.
VI. Impact of School Choice in Michigan
In 2016, The New York Times reported on the impact of uncontrolled charter school growth on Detroit public schools in “A Sea of Charter Schools in Detroit Leaves Students Adrift.
“To throw the competition wide open, Michigan allowed an unusually large number of institutions, more than any other state, to create charters: public school districts, community colleges and universities. It gave those institutions a financial incentive: a 3 percent share of the dollars that go to the charter schools. And only they — not the governor, not the state commissioner or board of education — could shut down failing schools.”
“For-profit companies seized on the opportunity; they now operate about 80 percent of charters in Michigan, far more than in any other state. The companies and those who grant the charters became major lobbying forces for unfettered growth of the schools, as did some of the state’s biggest Republican donors.”
The impact of uncontrolled charter school growth has had a devastating impact on the finances of poor school districts in particular. In his paper, “Which Districts Get into Financial Distress and Why?", David Arsen of Michigan State University analyzed factors influencing district fund balances from 1995 to 2012. They conclude: “Our findings… indicate that state school finance and choice policies significantly contribute to the financial problems of Michigan’s most hard-pressed districts. Most of the explained variation in district fund balances is due to changes in districts’ state funding, enrollment changes including those associated with school choice policies, and special education students whose required services are inadequately reimbursed by the state.”
This, according to a June 2016 New York Times article, is the state of public education in Detroit:
Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools. It got competition, and chaos. …
Detroit now has a bigger share of students in charters than any American city except New Orleans, which turned almost all its schools into charters after Hurricane Katrina. But half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools.
“The point was to raise all schools,” said Scott Romney, a lawyer and board member of New Detroit, a civic group formed after the 1967 race riots here. “Instead, we’ve had a total and complete collapse of education in this city.”
Contributes significant funding (Source) to organizations that seek to limit women’s reproductive freedom, including:
- Americans United for Life
- Baptists for Life
- The Becket Fund
- Citizens for Traditional Values
- Foundation for Traditional Values
- Justice Foundation
- Right to Life of Michigan Education Foundation
- Texas Justice Foundation
- Thomas More Law Center
Has been labeled the “four star general” of school vouchers (Source), which have repeatedly been challenged in the courts by the ACLU for undermining the separation between church and state, enabling discrimination, and lowering educational outcomes. (Source)
Established the DeVos Center for Religion and Society, which funds research and publications opposed to same-sex marriage and transgender rights. (Source)
Financially supports (Source) a number of organizations opposed to LGBT equality, including:
- Center for Military Readiness, which opposes allowing LGBT people to serve in the armed forces (Source);
- The Family Research Council*, which lobbies against same-sex marriage, same-sex civil-unions, and LGBT adoption (Source);
- Focus on the Family, an advocacy organization that promotes “conversion therapy” and opposes same-sex marriage and LGBT adoption (Source);
- Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, an opponent of same-sex marriage (Source);
- Towards Tradition, whose founder argued that it was “insane” that gays were not quarantined during the AIDS crisis (Source);
- Thomas More Law Center, which fought the legalization of same-sex marriage through the courts (Source).
* This organization has been labeled an extremist anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. (Source)