Recent Important Coverage of Betsy DeVos, Part 2

After today, this blog will begin a two-week holiday break. Look for a new post on Tuesday, January 3, 2017.  Good wishes for the holidays!

Here is the second half of a two-part post—yesterday and today—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.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the New York University education historian Diane Ravitch coined the term “The Billionaire Boys Club” to describe a new wave of mega-philanthropy—no longer responsive to the ideas of a range of grant seekers but instead driven by the strategies of foundation boards and staffs—and geared not simply to meeting the funding needs of supplicant nonprofits but instead to influencing the direction of policy.  In that book Ravitch warned: “Before considering the specific goals and activities of these foundations, it is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed or, one might say, captured by private foundations. There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions. These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies. They are not subject to public oversight or review, as a public agency would be. They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state… If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.  They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (pp. 200-201)

Now Ravitch has published an opinion piece for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Blame Big Foundations for Assault on Public Education, to explain how the Billionaire Boys have paved the way for the appointment of another— and this time more radical—philanthropist, Betsy DeVos to run the U.S. Department of Education. (The article is paywalled in The Chronicle, but Ravitch has provided a copy on her personal blog.)

In her new piece, Ravitch reviews the membership of the original Billionaire Boys Club and demonstrates its influence: “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation have promoted charter schools and school choice for the past decade. They laid the groundwork for extremist attacks on public schools. They legitimized taxpayer subsidies for privately managed charters and for ‘school choice,’ which paved the way for vouchers. (Indeed, as foundations spawned thousands of charter schools in the past decade, nearly half of the states endorsed voucher programs.) At least a dozen more foundations have joined the Big Three, including the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund.”  While Betsy DeVos’s philanthropic priorities are much farther to the right, Ravitch argues that the more centrist foundations have normalized school choice through their donations and as program officers from the Gates Foundation were brought in as key staff at Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education.

Ravitch argues that, working in concert, these foundations and their philanthropic gifts have shifted the broader conversation to normalize what has become known as “corporate school reform” and to promote school choice.  They have also created and funded think tanks to justify this work and created  a concerted messaging campaign to favor their agenda; “For years these groups have argued that, one, public schools are ‘failing’; two, we must save poor children from these failing schools; three, they are failing because of bad teachers; four, anyone with a few weeks of training can teach as well, or better.  It’s a simple, easily digestible narrative, and it’s wrong.”

I urge you to read Ravitch’s critique and refutation of the mega-philanthropists’ agenda.  As Trump has nominated Betsy DeVos to move the privatization agenda deeper and farther to the right, Ravitch reminds readers about something that none of today’s mega-foundations seems to be promoting: “(U)niversal public education under democratic control has long been one of the hallmarks of our democracy. No high-performing nation in the world has turned its public schools over to the free market.”

Because, as Ravitch points out, Betsy DeVos’s experience is in far-right philanthropy, it might be expected that she’ll bring staff people with whom she is comfortable to run the U.S. Department of Education.  And this week, Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s most experienced reporter on federal education policy, has explored that very topic: Who Is Part of Ed.Sec. Nominee Betsy DeVos’ Policy Circle?  “After all,” begins Klein, “she and Trump have about 150 political appointee gigs to fill at the agency. In filling posts…. DeVos could decide to draw from a deep pool of folks she has worked with in education advocacy and political offices, including at the American Federation for Children, a political and advocacy organization she chaired until recently.  Many of them have ties to her home state of Michigan, including Josh Venable, a one-time aide to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is said to be helping with the transition. Like DeVos, they’ve been active in Republican politics, especially, and school choice  Also like DeVos, most haven’t served in state education agencies or school districts, at least not in recent years.” Venable has served as national director of advocacy and legislation for Jeb Bush’s pro-privatization Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Klein suspects that the DeVos-founded American Federation for Children will be sending several staff people to Washington to work in the U.S. Department of Education. What sort of experience would they bring?  “Over the past five years AFC has advanced school choice in a number of states, including Indiana, Nevada and Wisconsin…. The organization writes model legislation to help state lawmakers push vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax credits for school choice.”

Klein speculates that Greg Brock, executive director of AFC might be tapped.  For several years between 2000 and 2010, “Brock ran All Children Matter, a political action committee financed by DeVos and her husband, Richard ‘Dick’ DeVos.  The committee sought to elect lawmakers who were friendly to school choice, and target those who weren’t, including anti-voucher Republicans… Brock was also the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project,” the Michigan organization that has promoted charter schools and blocked state laws to regulate charters.  Other American Federation for Children staff described by Klein are Matt Frendewey, AFC’s communications director, and John Schilling, AFC’s chief operating officer.

Another DeVos insider, Greg MeNeilly, is currently chief operating officer of the Windquest Group, a company owned by the DeVoses.  “McNeilly has a long record both in GOP politics and with the DeVos family. He served as the campaign manager for Dick DeVos’ ultimately unsuccessful bid for governor of Michigan in 2006. And he was an architect of Michigan’s Right to Work law…. On the education front, he was the communications director of ‘Kids First! Yes!’ And from 1998 to 2000 he served as a political director for the Michigan Republican Party. He’s also currently on the board of GLEP (Great Lakes Education Project)…. (H)e’s known as an unofficial gatekeeper to Betsy and Dick DeVos.”

Klein also mentions Campbell Brown, the former CNN anchor and driver of a national campaign to eliminate due-process job protection for school teachers and undermine teachers unions. Quite recently Campbell Brown launched what she claims is an objective education news website, The 74. Given Cambell Brown’s well-known biases, it is difficult to take seriously her claim of journalistic objectivity. About Campbell Brown, Alyson Klein notes: “She did however, write a warm blog post in support of DeVos’ nomination.”

Finally, to sum up the basic profile of Betsy DeVos, we can turn to Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker: Betsy DeVos and the Plan to Break Public Schools. “DeVos lobbied for school-choice voucher programs and tax-credit initiatives, intended to widen the range of institutions—including private and religious—that could receive funding that might otherwise go to both charter and traditional public schools… One can fully credit DeVos’s commitment to her cause—one might even term it her crusade—while also seeking to evaluate its effectiveness… Almost two-thirds of the state’s (Michigan’s) charter schools are run by for-profit management companies, which are not required to make the financial disclosures that would be expected of not-for-profit or public entities… And, despite the rhetoric of ‘choice,’ lower-income students were effectively segregated into poorer-performing schools, while parents of more privileged students were better equipped to navigate the system.”

Mead reminds us: “Missing in the ideological embrace of choice for choice’s sake is any suggestion of the public school as a public good—as a centering locus for a community and as a shared pillar of the commonweal, in which all citizens have an investment… In one interview… DeVos spoke in favor of ‘charter schools, online schools, virtual schools, blended learning, any combination thereof—and, frankly, any combination or any kind of choice that hasn’t yet been thought of.’ A preemptive embrace of choices that haven’t yet been thought of might serve as an apt characterization of Trump’s entire, chaotic cabinet-selection process. But whether it is the approach that will best serve current and prospective American school students is another question entirely.”

This blog has covered Betsy DeVos in previous posts: