Trump picks Betsy DeVos for education secretary post

Chad Livengood, Jonathan Oosting, and Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday said he intends to appoint west Michigan GOP mega donor and philanthropist Betsy DeVos to be his education secretary, putting an ardent supporter of school choice in charge of the nation’s education policy.

DeVos, 58, is seen as a national leader in the school choice movement, which she has called an attempt to “empower” parents to find good schools for their children, whether they be traditional public schools in other neighborhoods, charter schools, virtual schools or private 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.”

Trump’s appointment of DeVos is subject to confirmation by the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate.

On Tuesday, former Washington, D.C., school chancellor Michelle Rhee took herself out of the running for education secretary, clearing the path for DeVos’ appointment.

In a statement, DeVos said she was honored to help Trump “make American education great again” — a play on Trump’s campaign slogan.

“The status quo in education is not acceptable,” DeVos said. “Together, we can work to make transformational change that ensures every student in America has the opportunity to fulfill his or her highest potential.”

Trump’s decision to have DeVos run the U.S. Department of Education comes four days after she met with the president-elect and Vice President-elect Mike Pence at Trump’s golf club in Bedminister, New Jersey.

At that meeting, Trump, Pence and DeVos discussed Common Core and “setting higher national standards and promoting the growth of school choice across the nation,” according to a statement released Saturday from Trump’s transition team.

DeVos is part of multiple groups that have offered support for the controversial Common Core state curriculum standards. But her views on the subject are less than clear.

DeVos pushed back Wednesday on 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.” During the GOP primaries, Trump suggested he might get rid of the Department of Education altogether.

DeVos is chair of the American Federation for Children, a Washington, D.C.-based single-issue organization devoted to expanding school of choice options across the country.

Speaking in July during a school choice forum at the Republican National Convention in Ohio, DeVos accused teachers unions of holding back innovation in education and called them “a formidable foe” at both state and national levels.

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 the past 14 years, the group has been actively advocating its education reform agenda in both the Capitol and state House and Senate elections, particularly Republican primaries.

The Great Lakes Education Project, known as GLEP, was instrumental earlier this year in getting the Michigan Legislature to abandon a plan to create a citywide commission in Detroit to regulate the opening and closure of charter schools.

DeVos is a former Michigan Republican Party chairwoman whose husband, Dick, unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2006.

The DeVos family, heirs to the Amway Corp. fortune, are the most prolific donors to the Michigan Republican Party, GOP officeholders and candidates.

During the presidential campaign, Betsy and Dick DeVos never publicly supported Trump, although other members of DeVos clan donated $245,000 to a fund to help elect Trump and other Republican candidates.

In 2000, Betsy and Dick DeVos funded an unsuccessful statewide ballot initiative to amend the state Constitution to allow tax dollars to be used for private school tuition through education vouchers. They have since advocated for school vouchers in other states.

In 2012, Dick DeVos led the charge in getting the Legislature to make Michigan a right-to-work state, eliminating work rules that made financial support of unions a condition of employment for teachers in public schools.

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.

Gov. Rick Snyder weighed in Wednesday in a statement, saying Betsy DeVos “will mean great things for Michigan.”

“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,” Snyder said. “I am also very pleased to see President-elect Trump has selected my fellow governor, Nikki Haley, to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. She has been an excellent governor, and I wish her luck in her new role.”

Detroit Regional Chamber President and CEO Sandy Baruah said of the announcement: “It’s good to have someone from Michigan in this critical role. We believe she will be an advocate for high academic standards and accountability.”

Lou Glazer, president of the nonpartisan Michigan Future Inc., said when he thinks about education, he assesses leaders based on whether they care about quality education for all children and if they are in favor of high-bar standards.

“On both of those things she has been, from what I know, she has been really good. She cares about quality urban education both here and nationally, and she is in favor of high standards,” Glazer said.

However, when it comes to unions and charter schools, DeVos is viewed as partisan, Glazer said.

“People have told me nationally she has been supportive of charter school organizations that are in favor of high standards, but here in Michigan when she got involved she was viewed as the reason the Legislature did not pass the (Detroit education) commission.

“She used her economic clout to have an open marketplace rather than the commission, which would have a way to assess whether charters are quality or not,” Glazer said.

Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, and co-chair of Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, said on Wednesday that she is extraordinarily happy for DeVos and is grateful she is a supporter of Common Core.

“We have to focus on setting consistent standards so every child in our country, whether rural or suburban, will be able to compete nationally,” Allen said.

Allen said she and DeVos may disagree on policy issues, but DeVos has a set of values to improve education.

For DeVos to improve the national education system, the focus has to be reform and education restoration, Allen said.

“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 disruptor,” Allen said.

While DeVos disagreed with the commission, Allen said ideology should not trump practical solutions for education.

“My challenge to her would be now that you have this federal authority, how will you bring practical solutions that benefit all children?” Allen said.

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland Township, also lauded DeVos in a statement Wednesday. He said she has “been at the forefront of the effort to ensure every child in America has access to a quality education no matter their zip code,” and said DeVos will “disrupt business as usual in Washington.”

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also praised DeVos as an “outstanding pick for Secretary of Education.”

Bush said “she has a long and distinguished history championing the right of all parents to choose schools that best ensure their children’s success. Her allegiance is to families, particularly those struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder, not to an outdated public education model that has failed them from one generation to the next.”

The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, gave a $3 million no-interest loan to the school in tax year 2014, according to IRS records. Their Grand Rapids-based Windquest Group private investment firm also lists the school in its portfolio.

The family foundation reported a $55.7 million balance in 2014, the most recent filing available, including various investments with a fair-market value of $51.7 million.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the state charter school association, said DeVos has been on the front lines of education policy in Michigan and nationally for almost 30 years.

“This is a great day for Michigan, and it’s an especially great day for the nation’s children,” Quisenberry said. “Betsy DeVos has been a champion for school children for decades, always putting their needs ahead of everything else.”

Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, meanwhile, issued a statement saying DeVos has done more to undermine public education than support students.

“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, Garcia 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,” she said.

David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers in Michigan, called the intended appointment “devastating for public education” because DeVos has devoted her career to “undercutting” public education by advocating for private charter schools.

Hecker said he feels “bad that now the remaining 49 states” will have their education policy influenced by someone intent on enriching those in the private charter school industry.

“She wants her million and billionaire friends to profit off of childhood education,” Hecker said.

The Michigan Democratic Party also criticized the intended appointment in a statement Wednesday.

The party’s chairman, Brandon Dillon, said DeVos is someone “who has made it her life’s work to channel her family’s massive wealth toward destroying Michigan’s public education system, and now she’s about to oversee the policy and direction of education for the entire United States.

“She has consistently encouraged and enabled attacks on public school teachers and our children’s right to a quality public education, to line the pockets of corporate charter school investors and make her family’s extremely conservative views part of a mainstream curriculum.”

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Twitter: @ChadLivengood

Staff Writer Jennifer Chambers contributed.

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