DeVos’ journey from choice leader to Trump appointee

Melissa Nann Burke and Chad Livengood, The Detroit News

The journey of Betsy DeVos from west Michigan school choice advocate to U.S. Education Department secretary designate began in the late 1980s, when her own children were enrolled in a Christian school in Ada.

She and husband Dick DeVos, an heir to the Amway Corp. fortune, visited a private Christian school in downtown Grand Rapids that served low-income students – many from Hispanic families speaking English as a second language.

The DeVoses started regularly donating money to the Potter’s House School to provide scholarships for children whose parents weren’t wealthy like they were.

“We realized very quickly that, while it was wonderful to help some families through the scholarship fund, it was never going to fundamentally address the real problem,” Betsy DeVos told The Philanthropy Roundtable in 2013.

“Most parents were not going to get the scholarship they wanted, and that meant most kids would not have the opportunities they deserved.”

Betsy DeVos declined an interview, but Dick DeVos says their experience with Potter’s House was an epiphany of sorts about how parental demand was fueling a fledgling school choice movement.

“That’s really how it kind of started. We said, ‘Well, we feel that we’ve been privileged to have an option, but it shouldn’t be limited to us,’ ” Dick DeVos told The Detroit News. “We wanted other kids to have that same option.”

It set the DeVoses on a decades-long mission to change public education in Michigan, building a potent political machine in Lansing along the way.

Their passion also made the DeVoses into polarizing figures. Critics say their agenda for choice and charters shows little regard for quality control, oversight or transparency, and is in part to blame for a decline in student achievement levels in Michigan compared with other states.

“They have fought pretty tenaciously to have no constraints on who gets to open schools – more choices are better – but that’s really disabling public education, and it’s hurt learning outcomes in Michigan,” said John Austin, president of the Michigan State Board of Education, a Democrat and a supporter of charter schools.

“Charters and cyber-schools – their purpose should be to improve learning outcomes, not to create a parallel universe of for-profit schools, which is what the DeVoses have done.”

Roots of political activism

Betsy, 58, is the daughter of Edgar Prince, who made his fortune in the auto supply industry in west Michigan. She attended Holland Christian High School and Calvin College and met Dick in the mid-1970s. On their first date, he took her to hear a Christian philosopher. They have four children.

Betsy’s political activism dates to volunteering for President Gerald Ford in 1976. She would later chair the Michigan Republican Party.

Betsy and Dick helped pass Michigan’s first charter school bill in 1993, and Betsy began volunteering on the boards of the charities Children First America and the American Education Reform Council, pushing to expand school choice through tax credits and government payments known as vouchers.

The DeVoses haven’t always been successful. In 2000, the couple tried to amend the state Constitution to allow tax-credit scholarships or vouchers, but 69 percent of voters rejected the proposal.

The idea of tax credits or other taxpayer assistance for private school tuition was still a “radical” concept in Michigan 16 years ago, Dick DeVos said.

“We were maybe irrationally exuberant – clearly ahead of the political curve on the issue,” said Dick DeVos, who would go on to spend more than $30 million on a losing race for governor in 2006.

Lansing attorney Richard McLellan drafted the 2000 constitutional amendment for the DeVoses, but said vouchers remain a “boogeyman” in Lansing.

“Betsy and Dick were committed to the idea and had seen the schools go downhill for so long, they just wanted to try to get the people to take a look at vouchers,” McLellan said. “But John Engler had a much better finger on the pulse of voters.”

The vouchers initiative put Betsy squarely at odds with then-Gov. Engler, a fellow Republican who didn’t want to pursue such a major change in state policy while charter schools and schools of choice remained a relatively new concept.

“It wasn’t in opposition to what they were doing,” Engler said in an interview. “It just wasn’t the right time.”

The plan would have let parents in some struggling school districts use up to $3,100 in public money to pay for their child’s tuition at a private or religious school. It also would have required teacher testing and guaranteed that per-pupil spending in local schools didn’t fall below a set level.

According to news reports at the time, Engler was concerned in part that vouchers would draw larger numbers of Democrats to the polls, endangering GOP candidates on the ballot.

“(Engler) felt that trying to push vouchers would take a lot of political capital – a lot of energy away from this first reform movement and put it over here,” said Dick Posthumus, who was then Engler’s lieutenant governor.

Betsy DeVos was so passionate about the issue, she stepped down as chair of the Michigan Republican Party because of what Posthumus described as a “basic disagreement” with Engler over when to put vouchers in the lap of voters.

“Betsy said, ‘Look it, we can’t stop here. We need to keep pushing. We’ve got to make sure all kids have opportunities,’ ” Posthumus recalled.

Quitting the GOP chairmanship, he said, showed her commitment to the issue.

Rise of lobbying effort

Betsy DeVos called the ballot-initiative outcome “tragic” and shifted the family’s resources to a more grassroots strategy – seeking to educate the public and legislators about the benefits of school choice. She wanted to get choice-friendly lawmakers elected, then help them draft and enact laws.

“For me, it is simple. I trust parents, and I believe in our children,” Betsy said Dec. 9 in remarks at a Trump rally in suburban Grand Rapids. “The answer isn’t bigger government. The answer is local control. It is listening to parents. And it’s giving more choices.”

In 2001, Betsy and Dick founded a political action committee, the Great Lakes Education Project, to advocate reform and promote the expansion of charter schools across Michigan “because a ZIP code shouldn’t determine the education outcomes for children.”

The group joined the public education lobby at the Capitol, pushing its agenda alongside teachers unions and associations for administrators, school boards and urban school districts.

“There were lots of voices in the education space, but most of them, while they purported to speak for kids, had their own agenda,” Dick DeVos said.

Posthumus, a close ally of the DeVoses and Gov. Rick Snyder’s legislative affairs director, described GLEP’s mission more bluntly: “They saw sometimes an unholy alliance takes place between the educational unions and the education administrators, from their perspective, to thwart the improvement of education for all kids.”

Austin saw a political agenda: “They were working as Republican political leaders to do things that were disabling to the Democratic Party and the traditional teachers unions and public education establishment.”

GLEP and other school-choice groups have succeeded on many fronts, said Don Wotruba, who has worked both with and against GLEP as executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, depending on the issue.

“We used to have a cap on charter schools. We don’t have a cap on charters now. We used to not allow cyber-charter schools. Now, we have cyber-charter schools,” Wotruba said.

“They have done a tremendous job of raising money and getting candidates elected into the Michigan Legislature that support their views on public education and school choice, and in some ways dominated in that regard.”

GOP roots of DeVoses

The billionaire DeVos family has long donated outsized amounts to GOP candidates and conservative initiatives nationwide.

In the last two years, members of their family have given a combined $14 million to political action committees and campaigns, including judicial and legislative candidates and Republican Party groups, according to an analysis by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. In the 2014 election cycle, the DeVos clan outspent the entire 134,000-member United Auto Workers labor union.

Dick and Betsy DeVos gave nothing to Democrats in the 2016 election cycle; however, Betsy has said “education should be nonpartisan.”

The full extent of Dick and Betsy’s money in Michigan politics isn’t public because some of their groups operate as nonprofit “education” organizations that aren’t required to disclose their spending the way political action committees must.

Groups such as GLEP and the Michigan Freedom Fund can send voters mail advertising that disparages or promotes candidates without explicitly urging a vote for or against a particular candidate.

Mark Brewer, a former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said the DeVoses’ propensity to shape public policy through nonprofits is why he once called her the “queen of soft money.”

“They’ve been doing this for decades,” Brewer said.

It’s also nationwide in scope. In 2010, Betsy DeVos helped organize the American Federation for Children as a national umbrella organization, with a $15 million budget and affiliated political action committees and lobbying arms that work with legislators around the country, said Kevin Chavous, a Democrat and the group’s former executive counsel who has worked with Betsy for 14 years.

“Betsy is always pushing that we have to be bipartisan. We can’t have this proposal be viewed as just a Republican Party platform agenda,” Chavous said.

In a 1997 op-ed in Roll Call, Betsy wrote “my family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican party…. I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now, I simply concede the point.

“We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment; we expect a good and honest government. Furthermore, we expect the Republican Party to use the money to promote these policies, and yes, to win elections.”

The opposing view

Thanks in part to the DeVoses’ lobbying, Michigan stands out among states as having among the least amount of public oversight of charter schools and the highest rates of charters run by for-profit organizations.

Betsy DeVos is reviled by Democrats and labor unions who say she’s trying to privatize Michigan’s public school system. They say the proliferation of charters has depleted traditional public school enrollment and finances in already struggling districts, particularly hurting community schools in poor urban areas.

“A lot of times the DeVoses will accuse us and say, public education in Michigan isn’t what it needs to be. That’s absolutely true. Performance needs to be enhanced in a lot of parts of the state,” said David Hecker, president of the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

“But the status quo in Michigan is really the DeVoses’ policy. They’re the ones who have purchased the policy that has the state in the position where the status quo, as a whole, is under-performance.”

Earlier this year, when the state was considering a bailout for the debt-laden Detroit Public Schools, Betsy wrote a Feb. 22 commentary in The Detroit News that favored shutting down the district.

“Rather than create a new traditional school district to replace the failed DPS, we should liberate all students from this woefully under-performing district model and provide in its place a system of schools where performance and competition create high-quality opportunities for kids,” Betsy wrote.

“It is no secret a vast number of Detroit’s political establishment – mayors, city council members, city administrators, judges and even top DPS officials – send their own children to private or charter schools, instead of to failed DPS schools,” DeVos continued. “Why should everyday Detroit parents be denied this same opportunity for their children?”

She expressed support for other changes including teacher retirement reforms, school calendar flexibility, alternative certification for teachers, prohibition of teacher sick-outs and “aggressive intervention, including closure” of Michigan’s lowest-performing charters and traditional schools.

GLEP backed stricter accountability standards, including the requirement to automatically close charters or traditional public schools than rank in the bottom 5 percent of schools for three consecutive years.

But GLEP and other choice groups successfully pushed to defeat the legislation because it would create a Detroit commission to enforce new standards for failing charter and community schools, arguing it would be beholden to city officials and suppress charter enrollment. Betsy sat on the board of GLEP until Trump said in November that he’d nominate her to lead the Department of Education.

Michigan school chief Brian Whiston, who faced off against Betsy in 2000 as the co-chair of the campaign against the vouchers initiative, still doesn’t believe in spending public dollars on private schools. But he likes DeVos, despite their “rocky” relationship.

“I like anyone who’s involved in education ... who puts kids at the center of what they’re fighting for. So while she and I may have some disagreements on how to get there, we’re both fighting for kids,” Whiston said.

“I’d rather have that person in the arena than someone who’s fighting for adults or unions or something else. … I hope she’s there (in Washington) to return power to the states and give us more authority at the local level to decide what’s best for kids.”

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Elisabeth ‘Betsy’ DeVos

Hometown: Ada

Age: 58

Family: Husband, Dick; four children and five grandchildren

Education: Graduate of Holland Christian High School and Calvin College (bachelor’s degree)

Professional experience: Chairman of The Windquest Group, a private firm that invests in technology, manufacturing and clean energy;

Political experience: Elected chair of the Michigan Republican Party four times, serving for six years between 1996 and 2005; served on the Republican National Committee, 1992-98

Other experience: Chairs the boards of the American Federation for Children and The Philanthropy Roundtable; serves as board member of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Alliance for School Choice, Great Lakes Education Project, ArtPrize, The Potter’s House School, the American Enterprise Institute and the DeVos Institute for Arts Management at the University of Maryland. Former board member at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Mars Hill Bible Church.

Sources: Detroit News research and