Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has long been one of the nation’s leading advocates for expanding school choice.
For three decades, DeVos has been speaking out against the monopoly of public schools on the education of children from poor families. She calls the public school establishment “a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. . . a dead end.”
Her formula for improving public schools is to force them to compete for students by expanding the choices available to parents. She has urged the creation of more publicly funded but privately-run charter schools, and state-funded tuition vouchers and tax credits to enable families to pay for private school and yeshiva.
Her appointment as Education Secretary was vigorously opposed by the national teachers’ unions. They view vouchers and charter schools as threats to the government funding of public school education, which provides their members with lucrative jobs and benefits.
When Donald Trump announced DeVos’ selection as his Secretary of Education, her New York Times profile began by stating, “It is hard to find anyone more passionate about the idea of steering public dollars away from traditional public schools than Betsy DeVos.”
Her nomination was also opposed by Democrats who rely on the financial support of the teachers’ unions and do their political bidding in return.
Her critics claim that vouchers and charter schools siphon away funds needed for public schools. DeVos’ response is that by providing other options to millions of families currently trapped into sending their children to failing local public schools, the competition for students will force those schools to become more efficient.
DEVOS’ RELATIONSHIP WITH AGUDATH ISRAEL
Shlomo Werdiger, chairman of Agudath Israel’s board of trustees, issued a strong statement urging the community to support DeVos’ Senate confirmation. “I have had some excellent discussions with Betsy DeVos. She is intelligent, compassionate and effective. President-elect Trump has chosen wisely,” Werdiger wrote on Agudath Israel’s website.
In February, DeVos became the first Cabinet nominee in history to need the vote of the vice president to break a tie in her Senate confirmation vote. The Agudah and many other religious organizations promptly issued statements of congratulations.
TRUMP’S “MOST HATED CABINET SECRETARY”
The teachers’ unions continue to oppose DeVos’ policies, organizing protest demonstrations whenever she visits a local public school or university. She also has to fight the entrenched bureaucracy in the federal Education Department, as well as the political power of local and state public school interests across the country.
The Huffington Post recently declared DeVos to be “the most hated cabinet secretary,” and said her only competitor for that dubious title was Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
A one-sided profile on DeVos in Politico provided a forum to one of her harshest critics, Thomas Toch, director of the education think-tank FutureEd. He called her “probably one of the most ineffective people to ever hold the job.” Toch declared that DeVos presides over a department whose senior staff slots she can’t fill, and where morale is “terrible.” He also claimed that “in Washington education circles, the conversation is already about the post-DeVos landscape, because the assumption is she won’t stay long.”
Those who have followed DeVos’ 30-year campaign to promote school choice through charter schools, tax credits and tuition vouchers reject Toch’s prediction that she will give up and resign in the face of bureaucratic obstruction and union protests.
Her supporters dismiss accusations that she is ignorant about education policy. She profoundly disagrees with liberal advocacy for an intrusive federal role in K-12 education, but she is anything but uninformed about the issues.
MAJOR POLITICAL AND EDUCATION ADVOCATES
Betsy and her husband, Dick DeVos, Jr., have long been major contributors to the campaigns of conservative GOP candidates and advocates of school choice. Her husband is an heir to the family fortune of Richard DeVos, the co-founder of the Amway marketing corporation. Dick Jr. ran as the Republican nominee for governor of Michigan in 2006. Betsy is a former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party. Since 1987, the DeVos family has given more than $17 million to political candidates and committees.
In 2000, Betsy and her husband supported an unsuccessful effort to amend the Michigan constitution to permit government spending on tuition vouchers. She served as the chairwoman of the Alliance for School Choice, Choices for Children, the Great Lakes Education Project and the American Federation for Children (AFC). The AFC calls itself, “a leading national advocacy organization promoting school choice, with a specific focus on advocating for school vouchers and scholarship tax credit programs.”
DeVos and her husband set up the All Children Matter Political Action Committee in 2003, which contributes to the campaigns of pro-school choice candidates.
EXPECTING A RETURN ON HER POLITICAL INVESTMENT
DeVos has never been reluctant to talk openly about the goals of her family’s political contributions. In 1997, she wrote in an op-ed published by Roll Call, “My family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party … We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment; we expect a good and honest government. Furthermore, we expect the Republican Party to use the money to promote these policies and, yes, to win elections.”
At the same time, DeVos believes that education should not be a partisan issue. She has supported Democrats who agree with her views on school choice, saying, “What we’ve tried to do is engage with Democrats, to make it politically safe for them to do what they know in their heart of hearts is the right thing.”
In 2013, DeVos pointed to the tax-credit scholarship program in Florida, which benefits over 50,000 students, as well as the statewide voucher programs adopted by Indiana, and the education expense tax deductions and low-income vouchers in Louisiana as examples of her advocacy’s success.
DEVOS DOESN’T GIVE UP EASILY
Valerie Strauss, an education reporter for the Washington Post, notes that, as a longtime critic of the Department of Education, DeVos knew what she would be up against when she agreed to become its secretary. Strauss very much doubts DeVos would quit now that she is in a position of real power.
“She hasn’t shown herself to be someone easily discouraged. DeVos has worked patiently for decades to promote the expansion of charter schools and the growth of programs that use public money to pay for public and private education. She didn’t stop when progress was slow, or nonexistent. She kept going, year after year. It was and is her life’s work,” Strauss wrote.
MORE SUPPORT FOR CHARTERS SCHOOLS AND YESHIVOS
The Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal, introduced in May, reflected DeVos’ emphasis on expanding school choice and empowering localities rather than the federal government to set their educational priorities. Overall federal spending on education was to be cut by 13.5 percent, but the budget allocated an additional $168 million for expanding charter schools and $250 million for tuition vouchers, tax credits and other school choice programs for which the parents of yeshiva students could qualify.
The House and Senate rejected the school choice proposals in the administration’s budget, but two Republican amendments offered for the tax cut proposal currently under consideration by the Senate would implement school choice initiatives.
An amendment introduced by Utah Senator Orrin Hatch would enable tuition and other expenses for religious instruction to qualify for the charitable deduction. The amendment proposed by South Carolina Senator Tim Scott would “add a K-12 education tax credit for corporate and individual contributions to state non-profit organizations who provide scholarships for children in low-income to middle class families.”
DeVos has also praised a provision of the tax cut bill which just passed in the House. It would extend savings from tax-advantaged 529 savings plans which are currently limited to higher education to the parents of K-12 students in private and religious schools.
DEVOS EXPLAINS THE PROBLEMS WITH FEDERAL MANDATES
DeVos remains committed to empowering local and state government to take back control of their schools from Washington, D.C. In a recent speech at the Washington Policy Center in Seattle, she said:
“I wholeheartedly believe real choice cannot be accomplished through a one-size-fits-all federal government mandate!
“That might sound counterintuitive to some, coming from the U.S. Secretary of Education, but after eight months in D.C., and three decades working in states, I know if Congress tries to mandate ‘choice,’ all we’ll end up with is a mountain of mediocrity, a surge of spending and a bloat of bureaucracy to go along with it.
“But D.C. does have an important supporting role to play in the future of choice.
“We can amplify the voices of those who only want better for their kids. We can assist states who are working to further empower parents, and we can urge those who haven’t to start.”
DEVOS NOT POWERLESS BUT EMPOWERING
As Secretary of Education, DeVos is far from powerless, as some of her critics have suggested, but there are limits to her power to set the federal education agenda. For example, she needs the approval of Congress to create expensive new federal programs.
But DeVos can reset the priorities and policies of existing Department of Education policies, such as the student loan program and the enforcement of civil rights regulations in schools, in accordance with her conservative views. She has been doing that, over the vehement objections of liberals, ever since she took office.
DeVos has practiced what she has long preached by allowing the states, for the most part, to set their own education priorities, even when they conflict with provisions of federal education laws, such as the K-12 Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed during the Obama era as the successor to George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation. DeVos has the power to veto state requests for waivers to these regulations, but has been reluctant to use it.
DEVOS DECLARED THE END OF COMMON CORE
DeVos has also effectively done away with enforcement of the controversial Common Core standards for K-12 grade curriculums, which offered states federal grants in return for adopting its curriculum in their public schools. Conservative education advocates said that Common Core gave too much power to the federal government without addressing many of the major issues facing education today.
Common Core did not directly apply to secular study curriculums taught in yeshivos and other private schools. However, its influence was being felt because the Common Core curriculum was beginning to be used in drafting the questions in standardized scholastic achievement tests.
DeVos said in April, “there’s isn’t really any Common Core anymore, and each state is able to set the standards for their state.” She added, “the Every Student Succeeds Act, which is in the process of being implemented now, essentially does away with the whole argument about Common Core.”
DEVOS IS NOT STUCK IN WASHINGTON
DeVos’ critics have noted that she spends relatively little time at her Department of Education office in Washington, D.C., while continuing to visit states and school districts across the country to meet with religious leaders and advocates for vouchers and charter schools. These include former Senator Phil Gramm to discuss school choice in Texas, Republican pollster Frank Luntz, and the main supporters of the conservative Institute for Justice, which has joined lawsuits in several states to permit taxpayer-funded vouchers to cover tuition for children attending religious schools. She also served as a guest speaker at the National Charter Schools Conference in Washington, D.C, and met with the South Carolina African-American Chamber of Commerce to discuss ways to bring more charter schools to African-American communities.
Her Department of Education spokesman, Nathan Bailey, points out that DeVos has also remained in contact with the main players in the establishment world of public education, including state education chiefs, superintendents, principals and teachers.
She also held conversations and met in person with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.7 million public schoolteachers and other employees. Weingarten remains one of DeVos’ most outspoken critics. “She has very much undermined public schooling, which 90 percent of children in America attend and which is the foundation to America’s democracy,” the union leader said.
A written statement by Bailey declared, “Secretary DeVos is focused on ensuring all students have equal access to a great education. She has made no secret that giving parents more options is a critical way to help improve outcomes, and America’s families have been clear in their demands for more and better choices.”
PAYING HER OWN WAY
A liberal nonprofit group called American Oversight sued the Education Department for the release of DeVos’ official calendar for her first six months in office. Its executive director, Austin Evers, a former official in President Obama’s State Department, gave the records to the New York Times, and accused DeVos of being guilty of “truancy” for taking too many long weekends and trips to family homes away from Washington, D.C., even though she usually travels on her privately-owned plane and does not ask for government reimbursement for her travel-related costs.
Bailey responded that criticism of DeVos based on her official calendar is “fatally flawed” because it only reflects her formal appointments and meetings, and does not reflect her efforts to advance the cause of education during much of her time away from her Washington office.
“Secretary DeVos isn’t a creature of Washington and prefers to spend her time in communities across the country with America’s students, parents and educators. She travels often to make that possible, and she travels at no expense to taxpayers,” Bailey said.
EMPLOYING THE “BULLY PULPIT”
DeVos does not hesitate to use her position as Secretary of Education as a “bully pulpit” to advocate for greater local control over education and greater opportunities for poor families to send their children to the school of their choice, instead of the nearest public school. She and other school choice advocates argue that it is inherently unfair that a child’s ZIP code should condemn them to attend a failing school.
Teachers’ unions and liberals confront DeVos with loud protests whenever she visits a local public school or college, but after decades of fighting an uphill battle, DeVos is not going to be intimidated now that she is finally in a position to set policy.