Billionaire Betsy DeVos, a major GOP funder and party activist from Michigan, has been tapped by Donald Trump to become the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education next year.
Many have decried the choice as a looming disaster for public schools in America, with NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia observing that DeVos’ “efforts over the years have done more to undermine public education than support students. She has lobbied for failed schemes, like vouchers–which take away funding and local control from our public schools–to fund private schools at taxpayers’ expense.”
Randi Weingarten, the president of AFT, stated that “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 that is opposed by the majority of voters. Installing her in the Department of Education is the opposite of Trump’s promise to drain the swamp.”
The choice signals the President-elect’s intention to put the expansion of taxpayer-funded charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools at the center of his national agenda on education.
Through her riches, Betsy DeVos has had a disproportionate influence on national and state policies affecting millions of Americans, helping to force through changes to the law that gut the rights of workers and redirect American tax dollars to fund risky charter school experiments that have repeatedly failed for America’s children.
She has also applauded efforts to gut election laws that are designed to prevent corruption, recasting the issue of money in politics as free speech and her right to speak “as loudly as we please.” (Her remarks about this and her praise for Tom DeLay’s “honesty” begin at the 52-minute mark here.)
Here are five facts to get smart about who Betsy DeVos is and what her nomination could mean for America.
1. Betsy DeVos Refused to Send Her Children to Public Schools in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Betsy and her husband Dick DeVos, Jr., have four children they raised in the prosperous town of Ada, Michigan, which is the headquarters of AmWay, the multi-level marketing company that made the DeVos family billionaires. She is also an heir to the Prince Corporation fortune from sun visors and other car parts.
The public elementary, middle, and high school in Ada, a suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan, are highly ranked, but she did not send her children to public schools. She has said that her two daughters were home-schooled for a number of years.
Instead of sending their children to public schools, for nearly three decades, Betsy and Dick have focused on pushing vouchers for private schools and bankrolling politicians to advance their agenda to redirect American tax dollars away from truly public schools.
2. She Retained a Convicted Felon to Lobby for Her Wish List of Education Reforms (and There Are Other Scandals)
In 2004, Betsy DeVos hired Scott Jensen to aid the legislative agenda of her group “American Federation for Children” (AFC), a 501(c)(4) arm of Alliance for School Choice, her 501(c)3), which push so-called education reform measures.
The problem is that in 2002, Jensen had been charged with three felonies and a misdemeanor for misconduct in office–for illegally using his office as the Republican Assembly Speaker to direct that state employees to perform campaign work at public expense. He and the others who were charged challenged the reach of state statutes in court through various appeals from 2002 through 2004, but they lost their efforts to prevent criminal trials.
But, the fact that Jensen was charged with felonies for misusing public tax dollars for partisan political purposes did not deter Betsy DeVos from hiring him in 2004 to advance her personal agenda to change American schools on behalf of AFC.
In 2005, he was tried in state court and convicted on all counts. The presiding judge told Jensen “what you did was a great wrong to the citizens of this state” because “You used your power and your influence to run an illegal campaign funding operation.” The judge sentenced Jensen to five years, including 15 months of confinement along with supervised release.
That conviction and public condemnation did not end Jensen’s job for Betsy DeVos. Jensen appealed his conviction, and he also lost his office in the legislature, but he had a job with DeVos.
For the next five years, Jensen was a convicted felon and DeVos’ point person in pushing her school choice agenda in the states.
In 2010, after changes in the judiciary, Jensen won an appeal of his conviction and agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor crime to settle the case.
His conviction for that crime also had no impact on DeVos’ decision to keep him on to push school choice.
Accordingly, perhaps it should come as no surprise that while all that was going on, another DeVos family school choice PAC was fined for $5.2 million by the Ohio Elections Board in 2008 for circumventing Ohio campaign finance laws. It was the largest fine for violating election laws in state history.
Do the ends justify the means for Betsy DeVos?
3. DeVos Has Pushed Policies Cloaked as “Choice” that Undermine Public Schools in Michigan and Nationwide
Her particular area of interest is the deregulation and privatization of the education system, initially through the introduction of education “vouchers.”
The primary organizations that DeVos has bankrolled to carry out these policy goals are the dark money group, American Federation for Children (AFC), which is a 501(c)(4), and its affiliated 501(c)(3) nonprofit group, Alliance for School Choice. These groups have become major contributors to the right-wing corporate education reform echo chamber.
AFC describes itself as “creating an education revolution” through what is described as “school choice,” via vouchers (tax dollars spent on private schools including religious schools), tax credits, and non-taxable “Education Savings Accounts.”
AFC has gone through several evolutions since its 1998 founding including name changes. Some of these changes occurred after political controversies such as violations of campaign finance laws in Ohio and Wisconsin, as noted above.
AFC is and always has been a very important player in local state and national politics, helping to strongly support Republican candidates who move her education privatization agenda forward.
For example, AFC invested heavily in Wisconsin’s recall elections to protect its political allies, including Republican Governor Scott Walker. Since 2010, AFC has spent at least $4.5 million on independent expenditures and issue ads in Wisconsin. This amount doesn’t include the individual donations given by members of the DeVos family, or any spending on dark money groups trying to influence the elections without disclosing their donors.
AFC also aggressively promotes the school privatization agenda via the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), where Jensen has represented AFC’s lobbying agenda.
ALEC, describes itself as a voluntary association of state legislators but it operates as a corporate bill mill where the corporations that fund most of ALEC’s operations and where corporate lobbyists and special interest representatives get an “equal voice and vote” with elected officials to approve “model” bills without the press or public present. AFC has been a “trustee” level sponsor of ALEC and is a member of ALEC’s Education Task Force.
AFC works alongside ALEC to push so-called “model bills” promoting “school choice” and tax changes to subsidize private schools. Essentially, both ALEC and AFC want that national priority to be expanded funding for charter schools, which defunds truly public schools.
The nomination of Betsy DeVos to be the head of the Department of Education is a clear sign that the nation is about to embark on a dangerously extreme national experiment in the privatization of our education system that could deal a death blow to our public schools as we have known them.
There’s little doubt that DeVos would use her power to undermine one of America’s greatest innovations that helped make our country and economy so strong in the 20th century–quality public schools–and instead, use the idea of ‘reform’ to further subsidize private schools along with for-profit companies and non-profits operating charter schools.
The expansion of charters has marched forward despite the fact that fly-by-night charter operators that have committed more than $200 million dollars in fraud and waste in recent years, as documented by the Center for Popular Democracy.
Some of that expansion has occurred through for-profit companies, like K12 Inc., getting tax dollars for so-called “virtual schools,” to operate as charters or as part of the public school system.
Dick DeVos, in a joint interview with Betsy DeVos, noted that he “commended to homeschoolers to consider is check out K12… Bill Bennett reviews the K12 personally, … it’s very consistent with our Christian world view…”
Like Betsy DeVos’ AFC, K12 has had a seat and vote on ALEC’s Education Task Force, and K12 has a seat on ALEC’s corporate board. K12 has paid its CEO millions in stock in the company, whose revenues come overwhelmingly from public school budgets. CMD has called one of the leaders of K12 the highest paid “teacher” in America.
As the Center for Media and Democracy has detailed, the federal government has spent nearly $4 billion in tax dollars on the charter school experiment advanced by DeVos and other billionaires, like the Kochs and the Walton family.
CMD has also documented how charter schools in the DeVos backyard of Michigan have been embroiled in fraud and scandal, and how the state has even received federal tax dollars for charters that never even opened. That does not include the nearly $1 billion state spending that the Detroit Free Press has documented have gone to charters in that state.
4. Theocracy: She Has Pushed for Vouchers and More to Get Tax Money to Support Christian Schools
DeVos has approached the issue of education as a religious issue for her personally and as an area which she wants to change the law to reflect her personal views. A long-time partisan activist, she got involved in education “reform” in the early 1990s, around the time that her husband ran for a seat on the Michigan state Board of Education.
After he stepped down from that post, in 1993 she and her husband took on the “Education Freedom Fund,” which, she has said, “I would define as ultimately Christian in its nature because in excess of 90% of the parents who receive these scholarships choose Christian schools to go to.” EFF provides private funding for private school tuition, and is supported with significant donations from the DeVos family.
Why did she and here husband choose to get involved in the political battles over public education even though they did not send their kids to public schools and they financially support private Christian schools?
In a joint interview for “The Gathering,” a group focused on advancing Christian ideology through philanthropy, she and her husband said they decided to focus on reforming public education and funding for private education because the “Lord led us there” and “God led us.”
At that meeting, they were asked if it would not have been simpler to fund Christian schools directly rather than fund political efforts like vouchers to get more tax dollars to fund Christian schools, and she replied: “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education versus what is spent every year on education in this country… So, our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s Kingdom,” adding that they want “to impact our culture [in ways] that may have great Kingdom gain in the long-run by changing the way we approach things.”
Her husband added: “We are working …. to allow for our Christian worldview, which for us comes from a Calvinist tradition, and to provide for a more expanded opportunity someday for all parents to be able to educate their children in a school that reflects their world view and not each day sending their child to a school that may be reflecting a world view that may be quite antithetical to the worldview they hold in their families.”
When asked if they are “against public education,” they have denied that charge while trying to reframe the conversation.
Betsy DeVos responded: “No, we are for good education and for having every child have an opportunity for a good education. And having grown up in families that are in the business world, we both believe that competition and choices make everyone better, and that ultimately if the system that prevails in the United States today had more competition, if there were other choices for people to make freely that all of the schools would become better as a result and that excellence would be sought in every setting. So we are very strong proponents of fundamentally changing the way we approach education … because there are hundreds of thousands and millions of children that are forced to go every day to a school that is not meeting their needs and it’s not right.”
Her husband added that they are for “public education” but that’s not the same as “public schools.” He said public funding for education of all kinds is a “laudable concept” that should not be forced to operate through “government-run schools.”
He also stated: “In my opinion, the Church has sadly retrenched from its central role in our community, to where now as we look at many communities in our country the church which ought to be in our view far more central to the life in our community has been displaced by the public school as the center for activity the center for what goes on the community….”
He added, “it is certainly our hope that churches would continue no matter what the environment whether there is government funding someday through vouchers or tax credits or some other mechanism…that more and more churches will get more and more active and engaged in education. We just can think of no better way to rebuild our families and our communities than to have that circle of church, school, and family much more tightly focused and being built on a consistent world view.”
Betsy DeVos did not disagree with this statement of their shared goals and responded: “If I can just add to that very quickly, I think for many years the church in general has felt that it is important for the children of the congregation to be in the schools to make a difference but in fact I think what has happened in many cases for the last couple of decades is that the schools have impacted the kids more than the kids have impacted the schools. The young children need to have a pretty solid foundation to be able to combat the kind of influences that they are presented with on a daily basis.”
(All quotes above are transcribed from their hour-long interview for “The Gathering,” available here.)
5. She Bragged that Her Family Was the Biggest GOP Funder of “Soft Money,” Plus They Have Funneled Millions in Dark Money
Betsy DeVos has used her family fortune to distort public policy to suit her personal agenda through direct donations and dark money because, in her own words, she wants a “return on our investment.”
The DeVos family is a major funder of the Republican party. In a 1997 op-ed that DeVos wrote for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, she pointedly admitted, “my family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican party.” She also said that she decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that they were buying influence and simply concede the point, admitting “we expect a return on our investment,” to make America reflect their vision for it.
DeVos has served as chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party and was the finance chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
In addition to the disclosed and undisclosed political spending for controversial politicians like Tom DeLay–whom Betsy DeVos has called one of the most honest men in politics–the DeVos family through the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation has been a major funder of many extreme socially conservative organizations such as the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family and Coral Ridge Ministries.
The DeVos family fortune funds pro-education privatization, anti-union and pro-school voucher groups.
In 2011 alone, the DeVos foundation gave $3 million to David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group created and funded by the Koch Brothers. The DeVos Foundation gave another $2.5 million to the Koch conduit DonorsTrust from 2009 to 2010.
The DeVos foundation has also contributed millions of dollars to other right wing organizations such as the State Policy Network, Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, FreedomWorks, Federalist Society, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and others.
Betsy and Dick DeVos were featured at a meeting of the ALEC sibling group, the State Policy Network, which gave its highest award in 2014 to the Mackinac Center for pushing the misnamed “right to work” bill into law in Michigan, even though that think tank has claimed to the IRS that it engages in no lobbying.
Their fortune has helped to underwrite Mackinac’s operations and agenda, which has included expanding powers for emergency managers to replace elected officials, which helped create the conditions for the Flint, Michigan, tragedy of kids being poisoned by lead in their water, as CMD has detailed in a history of those provision.
In 2015, DeVos money also helped fund the push for adoption of a statewide religious freedom restoration act, or RFRA law, that awards adoption agencies in Michigan the right to claim a religious exemption from having to serve LGBTQ couples. Both the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation and the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation gave money to Bethany Christian Services, which lobbied hard for passage of the controversial RFRA.
Recently, the DeVos family also helped fund two pieces of extreme state legislation in Michigan. The state preemption bill, dubbed the “death star,” HB 4052, passed by the legislature in 2015 bans cities from enacting their own laws governing wages and benefits. In one fell swoop, the law preempted local regulation of nine wage and benefit policies ranging from minimum wage to worker training and organizing.
For more on Betsy DeVos and many of the groups mentioned here, visit the Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch.org.
Kim Haddow and CMD researchers contributed to this article.