It’s hard to imagine someone less qualified to oversee the nation’s schools than Betsy DeVos, the Trump nominee for secretary of education whose Senate confirmation hearing is set for Wednesday. DeVos did not attend public schools, nor did her children. She has never been a teacher, administrator, practitioner or scholar of education. In fact, one wonders whether she has ever actually set foot in a public school.
Instead, DeVos is a billionaire who grew up in the Christian Reformed Church and would like to see religious schools supported by public funding. She once described education reform as a way to “advance God’s kingdom.” Born into the powerful Prince family of Michigan, DeVos is part of the Christian right royalty in the United States. Her father, Edgar Prince, helped found the anti-gay Family Research Council. Her brother, Erik Prince, is founder of the mercenary group Blackwater Worldwide, which received large contracts from the government during the Iraq War. Betsy later married into the DeVos family, billionaires who founded the Amway company and also have deep ties to the Christian right.
The two families have contributed generously to anti-gay and anti-labor causes over the years, but Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick, have shown a special passion for privatizing public education. In 2000, they used their clout to organize and fund a referendum in Michigan that would have allowed public money to flow to private and religious schools through the use of school vouchers, a practice the state constitution forbids. Michigan voters defeated the referendum resoundingly, 69 – 31 percent, but that didn’t end DeVos’ crusade.
She also chairs the American Federation for Children, a lobbying group that advocates for so-called school choice. DeVos has become a leading national proponent of school vouchers, which can be spent at religious schools. But where they are banned, as in Michigan, she has also pushed for the proliferation of charter schools and opposed efforts to hold them accountable.
School choice advocates seldom mention that every dollar allocated to vouchers or charters is a dollar subtracted from public schools, which are compelled to lay off teachers, increase class sizes and cut programs in response. Meanwhile, voluminous research on charters shows that they do not necessarily offer better quality education. Even those schools that get high test scores often achieve this by cherry-picking new students and culling existing ones through high attrition rates. Vouchers, meanwhile, help prop up religious schools that teach creationism and employ few, if any, certified teachers.
The DeVoses and their foundations have spent millions nationwide to elect pro-school choice candidates to school boards, state legislatures and Congress. Anyone who wants to understand the failure of the school choice movement should look to Michigan. Charter schools were first authorized in the state in 1993. In 2014, a year-long investigation by the Detroit Free Press concluded that the state was spending $1 billion annually on charters that performed poorly, and were neither accountable nor transparent. Today, 80 percent of the state’s approximately 300 charter schools are operated by for-profit management. Since the onset of school choice, Michigan’s performance on national tests has steadily declined.
If there’s an upside to DeVos’ nomination, it’s that she may force policymakers to admit the U.S. is headed toward privatization of its education system. Previous education secretaries, including Arne Duncan under President Obama and Rod Paige under President George W. Bush, have pushed school choice policies based on free-market ideology. But during the Obama years, the Department of Education vocally supported charter schools while pretending it could draw the line at vouchers. DeVos, to the contrary, makes no bones about her goal of clearing the path for vouchers. Her disastrous legacy in Michigan demonstrates that once policymakers accept school choice as a positive path, there is no philosophical barrier to other kinds of privatization.
If DeVos’ nomination goes to a vote, her chances for confirmation would seem to be quite good, given her family’s history of generosity to Republican campaigns. Among those who have benefitted from the largesse of DeVos and her husband are four senators who serve on the Senate education committee, as well as Senate leader Mitch McConnell. If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.