President-elect Donald Trump intends to name Betsy DeVos, a conservative activist and billionaire philanthropist who has pushed forcefully for private school voucher programs nationwide, as his nominee for Education Secretary, according to a person close to DeVos.
Trump’s pick underlines his promises on the campaign trail to put “school choice” – the expansion of taxpayer-funded charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools – at the center of his efforts on education.
His embrace of DeVos, a Michigan power broker and major donor to the GOP and its candidates around the country, shows a willingness to look outside his circle of loyalists. DeVos donated money to Republican primary contenders Carly Fiorina and Jeb Bush before throwing her support behind Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. She was never an enthusiastic Trump supporter, telling the Washington Examiner in March that she considered him an “interloper” who “does not represent the Republican Party.”
Teachers unions and other proponents of public schools are likely to decry DeVos’s nomination as catastrophic attack on public education. Some conservative groups are also likely to be unhappy; they have argued that choosing DeVos signals that Trump is wavering on his vehement opposition to the Common Core State Standards.
DeVos, 58, has not said much about the Common Core, the set of math and reading guidelines adopted by most states. But she has ties to several pro-Common Core organizations, including as a member of the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, started by former Florida governor and Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush.
“President-elect Trump rightly slammed Governor Jeb Bush for his support of Common Core on the campaign trail,” said Frank Cannon, president of the American Principles Project, in a statement Tuesday warning Trump not to pick Devos. “Betsy DeVos would be a very Jeb-like pick.”
DeVos, a former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, and her husband Dick DeVos, an heir to the Amway direct-sales fortune, co-founded the Windquest Group, which invests in technology and manufacturing. They have poured millions of dollars into lobbying for voucher programs across the country.
Betsy DeVos serves as chairman of the American Federation of Children and its associated 527 action fund, a platform she has used to support candidates who endorse vouchers and charter schools – and to attack candidates who don’t.
While hers is hardly a household name, she has helped change the landscape of education across the country. Three decades ago, there were no state voucher programs. Now, according to the advocacy group EdChoice, about 400,000 children in 29 states are going to private schools with the help of public dollars, some via vouchers and others through derivative programs, such as tax-credit scholarships or education savings accounts.
DeVos is working toward a scenario in which “all parents, regardless of their Zip code, have had the opportunity to choose the best educational setting for their children,” she told Philanthropy magazine in 2013. “And that all students have had the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential.”
Research on the impact of voucher programs shows mixed results.
Several recent studies have found that voucher recipients’ math and reading test scores decline after they transfer from public to private schools. But other studies have found that voucher recipients are more likely to enroll in and complete college than their counterparts who attend public schools.
Pro-voucher advocates see in the Trump administration an extraordinary opportunity to advance the cause on a national scale, giving more parents the ability to use tax dollars to pay for private schools.
The president-elect has proposed redirecting $20 billion in federal spending toward a grant program to states for expanding vouchers and charter schools. He has also said he wants to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to persuade states to devote another $110 billion toward vouchers – enough, he has said, for every child living in poverty to have a scholarship of $12,000 toward the school of his or her choice.
While charter schools have won bipartisan support during the past two decades, vouchers remain a politically polarizing issue, with most Democrats – including President Obama – opposing them, arguing that they drain public schools of needed resources and send taxpayer dollars to unaccountable private schools.
Vouchers also send money to religious schools, a fact that has provoked not just political resistance but also a series of legal challenges in state courts. Vouchers and tax credits “force all Americans to pay for religion, whether they believe in that faith or not. That’s fundamentally wrong,” Barry Lynn, executive director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said in 2010.
Critics of voucher programs fear that the Trump administration could wield federal dollars to dramatically undermine teachers unions and weaken the civic institution of public education, redirecting dollars from public schools to private institutions that don’t have the same obligation to serve all students – including those who are needy or have learning disabilities.
DeVos has donated to and worked with many groups advocating for charter schools and voucher programs. She has also given to several Christian schools and conservative policy think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute.
She and her husband, the 2006 Republican nominee for Michigan governor, have also made substantial gifts in support of the arts.
Betsy DeVos served on the board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts from 2004 to 2010, departing with a $22.5 million gift to support training for arts leaders. That program, the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, is now based at the University of Maryland.
DeVos and her husband are major GOP donors who during the 2016 cycle gave a total of $2.7 million to the GOP and to Republican candidates and political action committees; they made no donations to Democrats, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
DeVos’ brother is Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, one of the most profitable private security firms during the Iraq War. Blackwater came under intense scrutiny after the company’s guards shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007; four guards were convicted on charges related to the massacre. Prince has since left the company, which is now called Academi.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Emma Brown