Nearly 30 years ago, long before Betsy DeVos was active in politics or education policy, she was invited to a banquet benefiting Potter’s House School in Grand Rapids. DeVos, now Donald Trump’s designee for secretary of education, was unable to attend, but she followed up with the school, still in its early years of development, to ask if she could come by for a tour.
Potter’s House thrives on diversity. Its goal is to provide children with access to a high-quality education regardless of economic or cultural background. Many private schools don’t offer that diversity, but John Booy, the school’s superintendent, says Potter’s House actively works to recruit students, going into disadvantaged communities to let families know about the opportunity. While it is a Christ-centered school, all students are welcome regardless of their religious upbringing.
DeVos has been involved in the school ever since her first tour, and her commitment is both financial and through her personal time and energy engaging in the lives of the children who attend.
Booy tells a story about an elderly woman in her early 80s who came up the sidewalk to the school with a young child beside her. The woman was the child’s great aunt, and one day the mother had dropped him off at her home and never came back to pick him up. The woman wanted the child to get a good education, though her means were limited. He was the first student that Betsy and Dick DeVos aided at Potter’s House, helping with tuition and even inviting him over to their home for Christmas. He would go on to graduate from the school.
Booy also speaks about a young Hispanic girl who benefited from DeVos’ generosity. Her single mother was struggling to support the family. The girl had attended a local public elementary school where DeVos mentored her for over an hour each week. They would talk and play thinking games.
The public school wasn’t living up to the girl’s needs, so DeVos called up Potter’s House and asked if they had room. DeVos continued to work with her at Potter’s House and mentored the student’s sister at a different school. In addition, DeVos used her resources to help the girls’ mother find a job and get better housing. As Booy explains, DeVos “helped the family reach their goals and empowered them.”
DeVos and her husband have mentored dozens of children in the Grand Rapids area. They’ve continued to do so over the years even as they have become increasingly involved in state and national efforts to reform education. Recent media coverage in the wake of her nomination has portrayed DeVos as an ideologically driven, anti-public school crusader, but her work in Grand Rapids and across Michigan paints a different picture: that of a woman devoted to helping kids succeed regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds.
Gary Naeyaert, the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, which is partially funded by the DeVoses, says that, “Betsy’s support for school choice is based on the fact that we’ve always had school choice in this country for rich people.”
Philanthropy Magazine asked DeVos what she would want to be toasted for at her retirement party. “That all parents, regardless of their ZIP code, have had the opportunity to choose the best educational setting for their children. And that all students have had the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential,” she said.
DeVos “clearly cares about children and their education — and all children,” said Doug Ross, a former Democratic candidate for governor in Michigan, in an interview with WJR Radio. “And most interestingly to me, she has a real passion to make sure we deal with the issues facing poor children, regardless of race. That’s not to me an ideological commitment on her part; that’s really a moral passion. She feels a moral commitment to make sure that low-income children have equal opportunity.”
As DeVos prepares to take office as the next education secretary, she will have her greatest opportunity yet to affect the lives of students nationwide. A school tour nearly 30 years ago transformed into a mission to aid individual students, and then all students nationwide.
DeVos now finds herself as the most influential education policy voice in the country.
Shawn McCoy is the publisher of InsideSources.com.