President-elect Donald Trump’s planned nomination of west Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos for education secretary has ignited a debate about how the country delivers a high-quality education for every child.
DeVos, 58, supports increasing school choices, which she has called an attempt to “empower” parents to find good schools for their children, whether they be traditional public schools, alternative public academies known as charters, virtual schools or private and religious institutions.
“Betsy DeVos is a brilliant and passionate education advocate,” Trump said Wednesday in a statement. “Under her leadership, we will reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families.”
“Betsy’s appointment will mean great things for Michigan and for children around the nation as she takes her no-nonsense commitment to empowering parents to the highest levels in Washington,” Gov. Rick Snyder said.
Critics including teacher unions and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan argue that such efforts don’t work and instead drain money from cash-strapped traditional public schools.
“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,” ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss said.
“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.
Those who have worked with DeVos said confirmation hearings in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate will show she is concerned with the overall quality of education for all students.
“I happen to know she and her husband Dick have been very generous — quietly helping children in Detroit and Grand Rapids,” said Tom Watkins, a Democrat and former state superintendent of public instruction.
“There is a serious problem in this nation in educating more and more of our children to world-class standards,” added Watkins, who helped create Michigan’s first charter school in Detroit. “Education and innovation are needed if we want to remain a world leader.
“I suspect I will disagree with Mrs. DeVos on some policy directions but wish her well — as to do otherwise is to wish ill on our country and our children,” he said in a Thursday email.
Teacher unions fire back
DeVos has made it clear that she will challenge education unions. At a July school choice forum at the Republican National Convention, she accused teachers unions of holding back innovation in education and called them “a formidable foe” at both the state and national levels.
“The status quo in education is not acceptable,” DeVos said in a Wednesday statement. “Together, we can work to make transformational change that ensures every student in America has the opportunity to fulfill his or her highest potential.”
The National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers have fired back by questioning her commitment to education.
The DeVos appointment is “devastating for public education” because she has devoted her career to “undercutting” public education by advocating for charter schools that sometimes are run by private groups, said David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers in Michigan.
“She wants her million and billionaire friends to profit off of childhood education,” Hecker said.
NEA President Lily Eskelsen García similarly argued DeVos has done more to undermine public education than support students, pointing to her support and financing with her husband of an unsuccessful 2000 ballot measure to legalize school vouchers in Michigan.
“She has lobbied for failed schemes, like vouchers — which take away funding and local control from our public schools — to fund private schools at taxpayers’ expense. These schemes do nothing to help our most-vulnerable students while they ignore or exacerbate glaring opportunity gaps,” Garcia said.
DeVos has consistently pushed a corporate agenda to privatize, de-professionalize and impose cookie-cutter solutions to public education, she said.
“By nominating Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration has demonstrated just how out of touch it is with what works best for students, parents, educators and communities,” Garcia said.
Allies defend DeVos
But allies describe DeVos, a former Michigan Republican Party chairwoman, as a supporter of public and private education.
“It really is an attempt to demonize yet they really don’t know the truth,” family spokesman John Truscott said Thursday.
“They have a long history of just helping kids who have nowhere else to turn. … Most of their giving is very private. They don’t talk about it. That’s why there are those who can make these kind of charges because they just don’t know.”
Truscott pointed to Dick and Betsy DeVos’ financial support for Potter’s House in southwest Grand Rapids, a Christian-oriented school where many students don’t speak English as their first language.
“Dick and Betsy have sponsored kids at that school for years,” he said. “Many families can’t afford to send their kids there.”
The DeVoses founded their own charter high school, the West Michigan Aviation Academy, located on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids.
The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation gave a $3 million no-interest loan to the school in tax year 2014, according to Internal Revenue Service records.
Members of the DeVos family, heirs to the Amway Corp. fortune, have given millions of dollars to the Grand Rapids Public Schools, Truscott said.
DeVos is chair of the American Federation for Children, a Washington, D.C.-based group devoted to expanding school of choice options across the country.
In Michigan, DeVos sits on the board of the Great Lakes Education Project, which has operated as her influential family’s school choice advocacy arm in Lansing. For 14 years, the group has advocated its education reform agenda in the Capitol and state legislative elections, particularly Republican primaries.
A challenge for DeVos
The DeVos-backed GLEP was instrumental this year in persuading the Michigan Legislature to abandon a plan to create a citywide commission in Detroit to regulate the opening and closure of charter schools.
Tonya Allen backed the commission as co-chair of Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, but said Wednesday she is extraordinarily happy for DeVos even though the west Michigan philanthropist opposed the commission.
“My challenge to her would be now that you have this federal authority, how will you bring practical solutions that benefit all children?” said Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation.
Allen said she and DeVos may disagree on policy issues, but DeVos has a set of values to improve education.
“We need to be investing in and supporting the systems that we’ve already built. I hope she would do both of those things and not just be a disrupter,” she said.
When DeVos met Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Saturday, they discussed Common Core and “setting higher national standards and promoting the growth of school choice across the nation,” according to Trump’s transition team.
DeVos is part of multiple groups that have backed the controversial Common Core state curriculum standards. But she pushed back Wednesday at conclusions some conservative activists and journalists have drawn that she supports Common Core.
“Have organizations that I have been a part of supported Common Core? Of course. But that’s not my position,” DeVos wrote on her personal website. “Sometimes it’s not just students who need to do their homework.”
Trump has vowed to get rid of the standards, calling them a “disaster” and saying the education curriculum “has to be local.”
Trump selected DeVos even though she and Dick DeVos never publicly supported Trump. Other members of the DeVos family donated $245,000 to a fund to help elect the New York businessman and other GOP candidates.
Under Republican presidents, education secretaries have operated in the background or used the office as a bully pulpit, as Ronald Reagan’s second-term secretary Bill Bennett did. Truscott said indications are DeVos may be more in the spotlight.
“So much depends on what the president wants from an education secretary,” he said. “Donald Trump is looking to be a strong, visionary president — he lays out the agenda and expects people to implement it.”
But the incoming Trump administration may run into a road block within the Republican Party, even though Trump and DeVos are the most pro-choice advocates in recent memory, said Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform.
"Trump is a much more committed, more vocal proponent of vouchers and charter schools than George W. Bush, as is his secretary designate a stronger supporter than those once in the same position," Allen said Friday.
"The challenge is that Senate leadership has already privately discounted the potential for success of a bold school choice agenda as have many of their friends and colleagues in Washington political circles. Betsy will need to be steadfast and have the right people around her to recognize when such sentiments are more wishful than reality. Sadly school choice advocates have their own Blob."
But Truscott said he thinks DeVos will succeed in Washington, D.C.
“I think people will be very surprised by what they see her accomplish," he said.
Staff Writer Jennifer Chambers contributed.