WASHINGTON — The nomination of Elisabeth “Betsy” DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist and charter schools activist, to be President-elect Donald Trump’s education secretary has delighted school-choice advocates, but others seasoned in the battles against the Common Core curriculum are not convinced DeVos is the right choice for the job.
Meanwhile, Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, which has fought to limit the growth of charter schools, showed no ambivalence. “Trump has chosen the most ideological, anti-public ed nominee since the creation of the Dept of Education,” Weingarten tweeted.
A product of Holland Christian School, whose mission includes teaching students to “critically evaluate the current culture in light of God’s word,” and Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a Christian liberal arts college in the Protestant tradition, DeVos is a staunch advocate of school vouchers. She is a co-founder of the American Federation for Children, which advocates for school choice, and served as chairwoman until her cabinet nomination.
According to her website, DeVos is chairman of the Windquest Group, which is described as “a privately held investment and management firm based in Michigan with a diversified consumer product and service portfolio.” She serves on the boards of the American Enterprise Institute and The Philanthropy Roundtable.
She is married to Richard “Dick” DeVos, who, with the cabinet nominee, is active in the school charter movement and Republican politics. Betsy DeVos was not a supporter of Trump, whom she called “an interloper,” during the GOP primary. Dick DeVos ran unsuccessfully for governor of Michigan against incumbent Jennifer Granholm in 2006. The couple gives widely to Republican organizations.
The DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation is named for the nominee’s in-laws, philanthropists Richard and Helen DeVos. Richard founded Amway and currently owns the Orlando Magic of the National Basketball Association.
‘Champion’ of School Choice
Advocates of school choice have applauded her appointment.
“It’s a good appointment,” said Frederick Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “She is a smart, experienced education reformer who is able to bring an outsider’s perspective. She’s an unabashed champion of education choice. She’s also a conservative who understands the need to curtail Washington’s role in education.”
“She has been a champion for school choice, and that will be a welcome change at the Department of Education, particularly for the D.C. scholarship program that the Obama administration has tried to zero out funding for and which is a lifeline for low-income kids. Support for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program will be a breath of fresh air,” said Lindsey Burke, the Will Skillman fellow in education policy at the Heritage Foundation.
Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which advocates for school choice, hailed DeVos’ political savvy in an article at EducationNext.org.
“She was one of the first people in ed reform to understand that we weren’t going to beat the teachers’ unions with op-eds and policy papers,” Petrilli wrote. “She pushed the private school-choice movement to invest in serious political giving much earlier than the mainstream reform groups did, and, so far, with far greater success.” Petrilli added that the American Federation for Children and its state-affiliated political action committees had put financial resources into 121 individual races in 12 states in this year’s general election, racking up an 89% record of wins.
Asked what DeVos might do to help the voucher movement, Hess said, “I am not sure the voucher movement needs revival or that it needs nurturing from Washington. I think it’s doing quite well on its own. There’s a reason the line ‘I’m from Washington, and I am here to help’ is a punch line. What DeVos can and should do is use the bully pulpit — make it more possible for states to use federal funds flexibly, including to support a range of choice options; and rein in out-of-control federal attorneys who create mountains of red tape and threaten the free exercise of religion.”
Burke added, “The Department of Education can work with Congress to advance choice by allowing children attending Bureau of Indian Education schools to exercise education choice, by transitioning D.C. into an all-choice district, by allowing K-12 expenses to be eligible for 529 tax benefits, and by giving states an option to make their Title I dollars portable, following children to education options of choice.”
Common Core Concerns
While school-choice advocates were singing DeVos’ praises, parents and other leaders in the battle against the Common Core curriculum were concerned about the appointment. Trump campaigned against Common Core (ironically, raising questions as to whether this is a matter for the federal government or the states).
But opponents of Common Core did not take comfort when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who ran against Trump in the Republican primary and is a proponent of Common Core, hailed the DeVos appointment as “an extraordinary choice,” adding, “I am so excited.”
DeVos has also served on boards of organizations that promote Common Core, including the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which Jeb Bush founded. Jane Robbins, a senior fellow at the American Principles Project, went so far as to assert, on Townhall.com, that the DeVos appointment is “Jeb’s revenge” for the bitter primary battle.
After being nominated, DeVos put out a strong statement saying that she is not a Common Core supporter.
“To clarify — I am not a supporter — period,” she posted on her website, BetsyDeVos.com. “Have organizations that I have been a part of supported Common Core? Of course. But that’s not my position.”
She added, “I do support high standards, strong accountability and local control. When governors such as John Engler, Mike Huckabee and Mike Pence were driving the conversation on voluntary high standards, driven by local voices, it all made sense.” DeVos said that, “along the way, [Common Core] got turned into a federalized boondoggle.”
Common Core foes are not mollified. Sandra Stotsky, a respected educator and prominent critic of Common Core, said that anti-Common Core parents are “skeptical of the nomination.” She added, “DeVos claims to be against Common Core, but has always worked for organizations that promoted it. We don’t have any evidence of what she opposes in Common Core. No one knows what DeVos will do to increase parental control over local school curriculum and to shrink the U.S. Department of Education — a campaign promise of Donald Trump.”
Dan Guernsey, director of K-12 programs at the Cardinal Newman Society, which is a leading opponent of Common Core, and co-author of a study published by the Pioneer Institute entitled, “After the Fall: Catholic Education Beyond the Common Core,” also was skeptical. Guernsey said in an email response to questions, “Her position seems to be that Common Core seemed like a good idea at the time, but that, according to her statement, ‘along the way, it got turned into a federalized boondoggle.’ This is the default position of virtually all former and even current Common Core supporters, including Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush! ... Her position should have been from the start: Do not let the national government, businessmen, bureaucrats and billionaires (she now represents all four of these) design a national education program, and let the states decide on their own.”
Melanie Kurdys, who lives in Plainwell, Michigan, has opposed the Common Core Curriculum and holds up as a model of what a good school should be Lumen Christi Catholic School in Indianapolis, which, according to its website, “emphasizes all the knowledge, skill and virtue associated with Catholic scholarship and sainthood.” Kurdys is concerned about the nomination of her fellow Michigander. She pointed out that DeVos is a board member of the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), which has supported Common Core.
Common Core, of course, is one of many issues that will fall into the bailiwick of the next education secretary. Another is the Obama administration’s policies on such matters as transgender bathrooms and the handling of sexual allegations on college campuses (the administration has offered college administrators guidelines that critics say erode the right to due process of those who are accused, sometimes falsely).
Edward Bartlett of Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE), said, “SAVE is delighted to see Betsy DeVos nominated to become the DoE head. Her oft-expressed concerns of overreach by the U.S. Department of Education bode well for restoring accountability to the educational enterprise at all levels.”
Charlotte Hays writes from Washington, D.C.