Trump eyes Betsy DeVos for education secretary

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Republican President-elect Donald Trump is reportedly considering west Michigan mega donor and school choice advocate Betsy DeVos to serve as his U.S. secretary of education.

DeVos is among a handful of candidates for the cabinet post, according to reports from The Hill, The Washington Post and POLITICO, which cite sources close to the Trump campaign or his transition team.

A family spokesperson declined comment on the reports.

As chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, DeVos was a driving force behind a failed 2000 ballot proposal that would have amended the Michigan Constitution to create a voucher system allowing taxpayer funds to follow students to nonpublic schools.

DeVos is “an obvious person” to make Trump’s list for the education post, said former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis, who noted she shared a table with Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Tuesday night during a Republican Governors Association dinner in Orlando.

“She has a passion, she has the experience and she is committed to education reform,” said Anuzis, who also attended the dinner. “I think she’d be a great pick.”

Detroit native Dr. Ben Carson also was mentioned for the education job but has decided not to join the Trump administration beyond an advisory role.

DeVos, 58, is a staunch supporter of charter schools and vouchers, which supporters argue give parents and students more freedom to seek a higher-quality education but critics view as an effort to privatize education at the expense of public schools.

DeVos is also a billionaire power broker with deep political ties at the state and national level. She served as a Republican National Committeewoman in the 1990s and was twice elected chair of the Michigan Republican Party, most recently from 2003 to 2005. Her husband, Amway heir Dick DeVos, ran unsuccessfully for Michigan governor in 2006.

“They’re kind of viewed by the Democrats and the liberal elites as the Michigan equivalent of the Koch brothers,” said longtime state political pundit Bill Ballenger, who predicted a DeVos appointment would be “provocative” and controversial.

“There’s going to be a lot of negative reaction, but if you look at it from the standpoint of conservatives and Republicans who believe in school choice and charter schools and education alternatives …, the DeVoses are really almost Exhibit A.”

DeVos currently is chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, a national group advocating for school choice policies, and sits on the board of the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-charter lobby group in Michigan.

She was not a vocal supporter of Trump during his presidential run. DeVos told The Detroit News in July she was not ready to back the brash businessman. She was not among four members of her family who attended a late September fundraiser for Trump and the Republican Party in Grand Rapids.

Federal records show DeVos donated more than $320,000 to the Republican Party, candidates and political organizations in 2016, but she did not contribute to Trump after giving to both former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina during the GOP primary.

Trump did not offer many details of his education policy while running for president. But the New York businessman consistently said he would “provide school choice and put an end to Common Core,” the voluntary national education standards supported by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder but opposed by many Republicans.

The president-elect has said he wants to “immediately” invest $20 billion in school choice. States would have the option to let the funds follow a student to a private school, and grant distribution would favor states with “private school choice, magnet schools and charter laws,” according to an outline on his campaign website.

Trump has also said he may eliminate or significantly reduce the size of the Department of Education, meaning his pick for secretary of education could oversee a major shift of control toward the states.

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon said “it’s frightening” that Trump would consider DeVos for education secretary, suggesting it would be “a disaster for anybody that believes in our public education system.”

Progress Michigan Executive Director Lonnie Scott agreed. The liberal advocacy group in September launched a website and ad campaign highlighting what it called the DeVos family’s “radical education agenda” in Michigan.

“It’s also awful because Donald Trump told people he was going to drain the swamp that was Washington, D.C., and he seems to be just turning to political donors to fill these positions,” Scott said.

The early days of Trump’s presidential transition have been marked by major personnel changes — former Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers abruptly left the transition team Tuesday — and reports that internal power struggles have led to a chaotic cabinet selection process.

But Trump, in a late Tuesday post on Twitter, said there is a “very organized process taking place as I decide on Cabinet and many other positions. I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!”

Former Congressman Pete Hoekstra of Holland, who co-chaired Trump’s Michigan campaign, has been mentioned as a possible CIA director and told The News last week he would consider any opportunity to serve in the administration.

Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel is a contender to replace Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who is set to serve as Trump’s chief of staff.

Anuzis said several RNC members asked him about Romney McDaniel this week, suggesting she is “on the top” of many people’s lists, but he stressed caution at this stage in the process.

“Obviously, (the Trump transition team) is just putting together initial plans for everything,” he said. “At this stage, it’s a lot of speculation.”