Late this afternoon the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee will hold the confirmation hearing on President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education.
This blog has extensively explored Betsy DeVos’s commitment to breaking the bond between government and education through the expansion of vouchers and unregulated charter schools. As she declared in a speech last year, “Government really sucks.” But there are additional reasons to be very concerned about Betsy DeVos’ record.
A brief from People for the American Way summarizes the national organizations which Betsy DeVos has founded or on whose boards of directors she served until she resigned from those positions when she was nominated as Education Secretary: “Betsy DeVos is… the co-founder and current chair of the boards at the anti-teachers union state advocacy groups Alliance for School Choice and American Federation for Children (AFC) and a close friend of teachers union opponent Campbell Brown, who also serves on AFC’s board. DeVos also sits on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (Jeb Bush’s foundation). Through the DeVos Family Foundation, the DeVoses have given millions to anti-teachers union and pro-privatization education groups; recent tax filings show donations to the Alliance for School Choice, the American Enterprise Institute, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Heritage Foundation, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, and the Institute for Justice. The foundation is listed as a supporter of Campbell Brown’s The 74 website. Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children further connects the DeVos family to right-wing corporate reform groups; it is listed as an education partner of the right-wing-fueled National School Choice Week Campaign…. School Choice Week is intentionally designed to blur the very real and significant differences between policies that fall under the broad banner of ‘school choice.’ There’s a huge difference between a school district offering magnet schools and the diversion of funds away from school districts to for-profit cyberschools, but National School Choice Week treats them… with a ‘collective messaging’ approach that hides the anti-public-education agendas of some education ‘reformers’ by wrapping them all together in the language of parental empowerment and student opportunity.”
Betsy DeVos’s involvement in national organizations that seek to privatize education is more widely understood than her role in Michigan politics affecting education. Over the weekend, POLITICO published Zack Stanton’s in-depth profile of the DeVos family and their deliberate and growing domination of Michigan’s public life: “Thanks to the DeVoses, Michigan’s charter schools enjoy a virtually unregulated existence. Thanks to them, too, the center of the American automotive industry and birthplace of the modern labor movement is now a right-to-work state. They’ve funded campaigns to elect state legislators, established advocacy organizations to lobby them, buttressed their allies and primaried those they disagree with, spending at at least $100 million on political campaigns and causes over the years.”
Betsy DeVos and the legislature in which she has invested have imported the questionable education programs advocated by Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education—the Third Grade Guarantee, which holds students back in third grade until they pass a reading test at a state established benchmark score—and A-F grades for schools and school districts based on the aggregate test scores of their students. Both plans ignore what research has demonstrated is a tight correlation between a community’s accumulated family income and the overall test scores of the students. When such states then impose sanctions on so-called “failing” schools and their teachers and students, the punishments fall most heavily on the schools, teachers and students who need the most help. The greatest problem with the Third-Grade Guarantee, for example, is that students who are held back even in elementary school have been shown to be more likely to drop out as adolescents.
Stanton explains that sometimes the political strategies undertaken in Michigan by Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick, later became templates for far-right advocacy on a larger scale: “They unveiled a new strategy in 2001…. Instead of direct appeals to voters, the DeVoses would devote their resources to PACs and nonprofit organizations to push legislators to enact the changes they desired. Thus, the Great Lakes Education Project, or GLEP, was founded. Initially, few in Michigan knew quite what to make of GLEP. At the time, most PACs were affiliated with membership organizations, like a labor union or chamber of commerce, and focused on issues important to those members. GLEP wasn’t anything like that. It was a largely family-funded effort with a singular focus on education reform; a multipronged structure gave GLEP great latitude to advocate, from lobbying legislators to purchasing attack ads on TV. In the years since the DeVoses debuted GLEP, we’ve witnessed the nationwide rise of single-issue PACs funded by a small number of extraordinarily wealthy donors, especially since the Citizens United ruling uncorked the dam of corporate money.”
And in Michigan, GLEP has quietly transformed public education: “Today… this constant push has totally remade Michigan education. The cap on the number of charter schools (has been) eliminated and attempts to provide public oversight have been defeated, making Michigan’s charters among the most plentiful and least-regulated in the nation. About 80 percent of Michigan’s 300 publicly funded charters are operated by for-profit companies, more than any other state.”
DeVos and her husband have also used their power and money to undermine teachers unions. Not only is Betsy DeVos an ally of Campbell Brown and her national effort to destroy the reach of teachers unions, but the DeVoses were instrumental in making Michigan a right-to-work state. As reported by Stanton for POLITICO, right-to-work legislation was introduced in a lame duck session that followed the 2012 election. Governor Rick Snyder had initially told labor leaders he was unsupportive of right-to-work, but, “Over the course of a few days in late November and early December, everything changed. Perhaps it had something to do with the $1.8 million blitz of TV and radio ads promoting right-to-work the DeVoses bankrolled. On December 6, eight days after Snyder met with labor leaders, the governor flipped on the issue… Right-to-work passed by a handful of votes…. The legislation was amended to include a small appropriation, which meant that once signed, it would be impossible for voters to repeal by public referendum.”
Massachusetts education reporter and blogger Jennifer Berkshire just spent a week in Michigan to get an on-the-ground response to DeVos’s nomination for Secretary of Education from education officials, Michigan politicians, and even the director of one of the many agencies the state allows to authorize charter schools. Berkshire describes what she learned about the DeVos influence in the legislature: “A characteristic DeVos move in Lansing traces a familiar pattern. A piece of legislation suddenly appears courtesy of a family ally. It pops up late in the session, late at night, or better still, during lame duck, when the usual legislative horse trading shifts into overdrive.”
Berkshire explains how the explosive growth of charter schools along with Michigan’s right-to-work law have damaged the power of Michigan’s teachers unions: “The union leaders I talked to were candid about how devastating the DeVos’ efforts have been. The unbridled growth of charter schools, almost all of which are non-union, means that new teachers in the state are far less likely to be union members. In Detroit, for example, the once powerful Detroit Federation of Teachers is down to just 3,000 members from more than 9,000 a decade ago, while fully half of the teachers in the city are unorganized. Meanwhile, an array of new legislation has taken direct aim at the machinery of how unions are run… The DeVos’s target is the unions’ political war chest, and here too their handiwork has had its desired effect. With fewer resources to draw upon, the Michigan Education Association and the far smaller American Federation of Teachers, have less to give to candidates and to political campaigns, to canvassing operations and phone banks, to get out the vote efforts and signs. During the most recent political cycle, the DeVos family outspent the two largest unions in the state, the UAW and MEA, by a wide margin.”
While the American Federation for Children PAC emphasizes “children” in its name, and while many of Betsy DeVos’s supporters describe her as devoted to the welfare of children, Berkshire concludes that the DeVos’ agenda in Michigan is instead broadly political: “(A)s I heard repeatedly during the week I recently spent crisscrossing the state, speaking with dozens of Michiganders, including state and local officials, the radical experiment that’s playing out here has little to do with education, and even less to do with kids. The real goal of the DeVos family is to crush the state’s teachers unions as a means of undermining the Democratic party, weakening Michigan’s democratic structures along the way. And on this front, our likely next Secretary of Education has enjoyed measurable, even dazzling success.”
The Senate HELP Committee has scheduled its hearing on Betsy DeVos as the nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education this afternoon at 5:00 PM. After the hearing and within the next few days the full Senate will vote on her confirmation. Plenty of time remains for you to call your Senators to oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos. Please take the time to share your opposition to Betsy DeVos with your Senators’ staffs. They are counting the phone calls they receive.