Here begins a two-part post—today and tomorrow—to summarize recent news coverage about Betsy DeVos.
You may feel you already know enough about Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. You may be disgusted that a one-cause activist and philanthropist has been appointed for an important federal position that oversees, for example, civil rights protection for children across America’s public schools, especially as her one cause has been the expansion of school vouchers—public dollars children can carry to private and parochial schools. Maybe you’ve already learned enough to be furious that yet another billionaire from the One Percent will be shaping federal policy for the schools that serve the 99 Percent. Maybe you are angry about DeVos’s lack of experience in education—and especially the schools operated by and for the public. Betsy DeVos graduated from Holland Christian High School and, as columnist Wendy Lecker has explained: “(S)he is wholly unqualified to be Secretary of Education. She has no education degree or background, and has never worked in, attended or sent her children to public school.”
But this two-part blog will help fill in any gaps in your understanding. During DeVos’s confirmation hearing, and later, if she is confirmed and as her policy proposals roll out, you’ll have the facts at your fingertips as contributions to any and every conversation. News reporting on DeVos this week has been particularly interesting, as newspapers have been assigning reporters to investigate in depth DeVos’s advocacy to reduce regulation of marketplace school choice, the influence of her religious beliefs, her partners and allies in the sphere of school choice advocacy, and the way in which DeVos’s ideologically driven philanthropy fits right in to the work of the Waltons, the Broads, and the Gates, although DeVos is far more driven by far-right anti-government, pro-voucher ideology.
Kate Zernike’s investigative piece for the NY Times, How Trump’s Education Nominee Bent Detroit to Her Will on Charter Schools, is a must read. Zernike has interviewed the people in Michigan who were involved in the intense legislative fight last spring and summer about the inclusion of a “Detroit Education Commission” to provide some regulation of what has become an out-of-control charter school sector in that city: “Few disagreed that schools in Detroit were a mess: a chaotic mix of charters and traditional public schools, the worst-performing in the nation. So city leaders across the political spectrum agreed on a fix, with legislation to provide oversight and set standards on how to open schools and close bad ones. But the bill died without even getting a final vote. And the person most influential in killing it is now President-elect Donald J. Trump’s nominee to oversee the nation’s public schools Betsy DeVos…”
Zernike continues: “The bill’s proposals are common in many states and accepted by many supporters of school choice, like a provision to stop failing charter operators from creating new schools. But Ms. DeVos argued that this kind of oversight would create too much bureaucracy and limit choice. A believer in a freer market than even some free market economists would endorse, Ms. DeVos pushed back on any regulation as too much regulation. Charter schools should be allowed to operate as they wish; parents would judge with their feet. Detroit Public Schools, she argued, should simply be shut down and the system turned over to charters, or the tax dollars given to parents in the form of vouchers to attend private schools… In the debate over Detroit schools, Republican lawmakers say Ms. DeVos withheld her financial support until they agreed to kill the bill. And they were rewarded well when they did: Ms. DeVos’s family began a flood of donations to Republicans that totaled $1.45 million in seven weeks.”
Zernike has investigated further to discover the role of Dick and Betsy DeVos in the creation over twenty years ago of what has become a chaotic charter school sector: “Ms. DeVos and her husband had lobbied hard for the state law that established charter schools in 1994. It allowed an unusually large number of organizations to start charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. But it created little oversight. Even charter school supporters now criticize Detroit as one of the most unregulated markets in the country. About 80 percent of the state’s charters are operated for profit, far higher than anywhere else… With more than a dozen organizations issuing charters, it is hard for parents to get the information they need to inform their choices. And, in a city of 140 square miles, the highest-performing schools usually remain out of reach to the poorest students, because most schools do not offer transportation, and the city bus service is unreliable.”
The NY Times also published an opinion piece, Betsy DeVos and God’s Plan for Schools, by Katherine Stewart, author of a book about the radical, far-right ideas of Christian Dominionism, what pastor and Christian broadcaster D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church described to his followers: “to ‘exercise godly dominion’ over ‘every aspect and institution of human society,’ including the government.” The work of the Coral Ridge ministry along with “the Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal juggernaut of the religious right; the Colorado-based Christian ministry Focus on the Family; and the Mackinac Center for Pubic Policy” are all supported financially by the DeVos Family Foundation and the foundation of Betsy DeVos’s parents, the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation.
Stewart explains: “At the rightmost edge of the Christian conservative movement, there are those who dream of turning the United States into a Christian republic subject to ‘biblical laws’… Betsy DeVos stands at the intersection of two family fortunes that helped to build the Christian right. In 1983, her father, Edgar Prince, who made his money in the auto parts business, contributed to the creation of the Family Research Council…. Her father-in-law, Richard DeVos Sr., the co-founder of Amway, a company built on ‘multilevel marketing’ or what critics call pyramid selling, has been funding groups and causes on the economic and religious right since the 1970s. Ms. DeVos is a chip off the old block. At a 2001 gathering of conservative Christian philanthropists, she singled out education reform as a way to ‘advance God’s kingdom.'”
So how have all of Betsy DeVos’s ideas worked out for Michigan? In another must-read article by education reporters Caitlin Emma, Benjamin Wermund and Kimberly Hefling, POLITICO assesses the results in DeVos’s Michigan Schools Experiment Gets Poor Grades: “Despite two decades of charter-school growth, the state’s overall academic progress has failed to keep pace with other states: Michigan ranks near the bottom for fourth-and eighth-grade math and fourth-grade reading on a nationally representative test, nicknamed the ‘Nation’s Report Card.’ Notably, the state’s charter schools scored worse on that test than their traditional public school counterparts, according to an analysis of federal data. Critics say Michigan’s laissez-faire attitude about charter school regulation has led to marginal and, in some cases, terrible schools in the state’s poorest communities as part of a system dominated by for-profit charters. Charter-school growth has also weakened the finances and enrollment of traditional public-school districts like Detroit’s…. The results in Michigan are so disappointing that even some supporters of school choice are critical of the state’s policies.”
Emma, Wermund and Hefling provide more details: “Three Michigan school districts enroll some of the highest percentages of charter-school students nationwide—Detroit, Flint, and DeVos’ home town of Grand Rapid…. All told, the DeVoses have contributed at least $7 million to lawmakers and the state Republican Party in recent years, and their influence can be seen in just about every major piece of education-related legislation in Michigan since the 1990s. That includes the 1993 law that permitted charters in the state and a 2011 vote to lift a cap on the number of charter schools in the state. Michigan permits practices barred by some other states, such as for-profit charter operators, virtual charter schools, and multiple charter-authorizing bodies… A federal audit this year noted that Michigan’s charter-school law doesn’t include rules regarding conflicts of interest, among other issues.”
As reported by POLITICO, Betsy and Dick DeVos did support some increased oversight of charters in Detroit, even though their lobbying and money killed the idea of the charter oversight agency to be called the Detroit Education Commission. Betsy DeVos agreed to rules that would automatically close “charters that rank in the bottom 5 percent of schools for three consecutive years.” But the reporters note that, “In Detroit alone, about 70 percent of charter schools ranked in the bottom quarter of the state’s schools, according to an Ed Trust-Midwest report using data from the 2013-2014 school year. The foundation has called the quality of the city’s charter-school sector a ‘civil rights issue.'”
This blog has covered Betsy DeVos in previous posts:
- Arthur Camins Warns: Don’t Let the Government Take Away Your Public School!
- Congressional Leadership on Education Will Agree with Philosophy and Policy of DeVos-Trump
- Michigan Commentators Fill in the Gaps about Michigan’s Betsy DeVos
- Betsy DeVos: School Choice, the Establishment Clause, Religious Liberty, and Public Education
- Important Reading on Betsy DeVos
- President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos Push Increasingly Discredited School Policy
- DeVos Family Contributes Lavishly to Legislators Who Defeated Detroit Charter School Oversight