Betsy DeVos, president-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of the Department of Education, might not be the worst of the megabucks donors and right-wing crusaders in Mr. Trump’s prospective cabinet.
There’s Scott Pruitt, the EPA head who’s sued the EPA. Rick Perry, the energy secretary who wanted to dump the Department of Energy. Andrew Puzder, the labor secretary and fast-food mogul who opposed a $10 minimum wage. And Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state who heads the world’s biggest oil company and is Russia’s decorated BFF. That’s just to mention a few.
But the DeVos appointment, like all the others, is causing alarm. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis told me DeVos is “a nightmare.” University of Illinois College of Education professor Pauline Lipman, in an interview last week, said she’ll be “a really significant threat.” And American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten issued a statement claiming that Trump has selected “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee” in the Department of Education’s history.
“Betsy DeVos is everything Donald Trump said is wrong in America—an ultra-wealthy heiress who uses her money to game the system and push a special-interest agenda,” Weingarten wrote. By nominating her, “Trump makes it clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding, and destroying public education in America.”
DeVos, as you’ve no doubt gathered by now, is not a friend of teachers’ unions. Nor of what she calls “government schools”—traditional public neighborhood schools—though she has no personal experience with them. She’s never been a teacher or a school administrator, and she never attended public school herself. Neither did any of her four children. So what, besides millions of dollars in campaign contributions, is leading her to the federal government’s top education job?
A native of Holland, Michigan, DeVos is industrial royalty—daughter of the founder of Prince Manufacturing, a maker of machines and parts for the auto industry. Descended from Dutch-German immigrants who came to America to escape government interference in the Dutch Reformed Church, Betsy was educated at private Christian schools and graduated from Calvin College.
She married into an even larger Michigan family fortune: her husband, Dick DeVos, is the son of the cofounder of Amway, the international “multilevel marketing” company that sells home and personal-care products, and is built on an ever-expanding sales-force recruitment and training model. He’s a former CEO of Amway and currently the CEO, president, and owner of the NBA’s Orlando Magic.
Betsy and Dick DeVos have supported conservative, antigay, and antiunion causes, including legislation that turned Michigan—home to the United Auto Workers—into a “right to work” state. The Devoses have been major funders of the Republican Party, contributing nearly $3 million to its candidates last year alone. But Betsy’s major focus has been on promoting free-market-based education and vouchers that would divert tax money to private schools, including those with a religious agenda. She backed legislation that led to a huge expansion of charter schools in Michigan and defeated legislation that would’ve regulated those schools. (Not incidentally, Betsy’s brother, Erik Prince, is the founder of Blackwater, the company that led the way in privatizing American military operations.) Her current favorite program is a voucher-in-disguise business “tax credit” that was defeated in Michigan (where the state constitution forbids it) but enacted in Florida and elsewhere.
Michigan now has the largest percentage of for-profit charters in America, and some of the most lax regulation, with particularly disastrous results in Detroit. Detroit Free Press editorial page editor Stephen Henderson wrote in that paper last month that “This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape—where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and ‘choice’ means the opposite for tens of thousands of children—is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for outcome. And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos.”
“She’s the epitome of the billionaire philanthropists who are intervening in public education to dismantle it and turn it into a market,” Lipman told me. “Education in this country is something like a $635 billion industry. When it’s public, there’s no opportunity to make money from it. But if you privatize pieces of it, you create opportunities for investment. Teachers’ unions are a critical defender of public schools and a major barrier to privatization, so dismantling them is a strategic necessity for those who would like to privatize public schools.”
“What she represents,” Lipman says, “is a merger of a racist neoliberal agenda in education and the agenda of the Christian right. That’s an agenda to dismantle public education.” v