Trump Picks Wealthy Voucher Proponent to Head Education Department

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Trump could have signaled support for public education reform. But he chose instead to give a gift to the Christian right via Michigan voucher champion Betsy DeVos.Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Some observers looking superficially at Donald Trump’s choice of Betsy DeVos as Education secretary may just view this as a gender-diversity hire to head a department he doesn’t care much for to begin with, or perhaps even a reward to Michigan for falling narrowly into his column in a close presidential election.

But DeVos is actually a very serious choice for the job, whose appointment sends a clear message about Trump’s education-policy emphasis. If it represents a valentine to anyone, it is probably sealed with kisses and sent to the Christian right in exchange for its success in convincing 81 percent of white evangelicals to vote for the mogul despite his character issues.

DeVos has been called the “four-star general of the pro-voucher movement.” She and her husband, Amway heir Dick DeVos, have devoted an enormous amount of time and money promoting voucher initiatives — the use of public funds to finance private schools — around the country. Chalkbeat reports:

In 2000, she helped get a ballot measure before Michigan voters that would have enshrined a right to vouchers in the state’s Constitution. After the measure failed, she and her husband formed a political action committee to support pro-voucher candidates nationally. Less than a decade later, the group counted a 121-60 win-loss record.
One recipient of its support: former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who created the voucher program that Trump’s vice president-elect, Mike Pence, later expanded.

Because the term “school choice” is often tossed around promiscuously to refer to anything other than traditionally operated public schools, it’s important to understand that DeVos is devoted to the more radical vision of robust publicly funded private schools competing for parents’ allegiances. Yes, the DeVoses have supported independently operated charter public schools — the apple of the eye of most education “reformers” and a type of school choice supported by both the Clinton and the Obama administrations — but mainly, it would appear, only if they resemble private schools in their freedom from public accountability.

The DeVos influence is one reason that Michigan’s charter sector is among the least regulated in the country. Roughly 80 percent of charters in Michigan are run by private companies, far more than in any other state. And state authorities have done little up to now to ensure that charter schools are effectively serving students, eliciting concern from current federal authorities.

Why mess with charters, DeVos seems to think, when you could just put the public money into existing private and religious schools?

“Charter schools take a while to start up and get operating,” she told Philanthropy Roundtable in 2013. “Meanwhile, there are very good non-public schools, hanging on by a shoestring, that can begin taking students today.”

That preference is certainly a family tradition. Dick DeVos was one of the early proponents of the rhetorical trick of undermining support for public schools by relabeling them “government schools.” The couple have sent their own children to private religious schools. And they are very tight with the Christian right generally; James Dobson’s Focus on the Family is one beneficiary of the family’s philanthropy, along with many Christian schools.

Lest Betsy DeVos be confused with some devout private citizen interested in education as a purely philanthropic cause, it should be noted she was chairman of the Michigan Republican Party in the 1990s, and before that was a national Republican committeewoman. The DeVos family’s highly strategic network of allied donors focused on conservative causes has led them to be compared to the Kochs. Indeed, they have collaborated with the Kochs on occasion, such as the campaign to convince Michigan governor Rick Snyder to sign anti-labor “right-to-work” legislation.

In any event, Trump’s selection of DeVos for his cabinet unmistakably represents a gift to conservative constituencies and their wealthy donors. And it also could be viewed as a large lost opportunity for the new administration. Had Trump gone with an education reformer more genuinely interested in public education — like, say, New York charter-school entrepreneur Eva Moskowitz or former D.C. school chief Michelle Ree, both of whom were on the early short lists for the gig — he might have split Democrats to some extent and at least shown some interest in fixing rather than killing public schools.

Media attention may focus on Trump’s inevitable efforts to dismantle federal support for Common Core school standards, and DeVos may be inaccurately described as some sort of “moderate” because she (like nearly every other GOP pol on the planet) supported Common Core in the past. But make no mistake: Trump has decisively associated himself with people who would be perfectly happy with a future in which the only thing “public” about schools will be the taxpayer subsidies.