Everything you need to know about Education Nominee Betsy DeVos

Things are heating up around Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.  Republicans had slated her confirmation hearing to take place on Wednesday, but agreed to postpone it until January 17.  Leaders pushed the hearing due to concerns raised by Democrats that DeVos had not yet supplied information regarding potential conflicts of interest to the bipartisan Office of Government Ethics.  At the same time, activists launched a social media campaign, calling on DeVos to uphold Title IX.

Without further ado, here’s everything you need to know about Betsy DeVos.  Everything you need to know so that you can reach out to the members of the Senate HELP Committee (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) and your home-state Senators to share with them your thoughts about DeVos.

Betsy DeVos and her Billions

It is no secret that Trump’s cabinet is chock full of the ultra-wealthy.  In the midst of that uber rich group, DeVos stands out.  How?  She’s the wealthiest, worth over five billion dollars.

DeVos is not a self-made woman.  She was born into wealth; her father was a billionaire industrialist.  Her husband, also born into billions, is the heir to the Amway fortune and is the owner of the Orlando Magic. Her brother founded Blackwater — the notorious defense contractor — and has amassed tremendous wealth by “privatizing warfare.” In fact, her brother described Blackwater as “an efficient, privatized solution to sclerotic and wasteful government bureaucracy” and, since Blackwater’s public debacles, has been quietly amassing a private air force.   Oh, and he’s currently under investigation by the DOJ for a range of unethical and illegal ventures.

The entire family has donated heavily to Republican politics, including — notably– more than $250,000 to the very Republican HELP Committee Senators who will be voting on her confirmation.  DeVos and her family are closely aligned with the Koch brothers and their efforts to use outsized spending power to shape politics and policy in this country.  Oh, and she wrote in an article in the nineties that she isn’t ashamed that she and her family are “buying influence” through their political donations, commenting that they “expect something in return… a return on our investment.”  She has also violated election and ethics laws to illegally funnel money into elections through PAC’s, racking up millions of dollars in fines that she has, as of yet, refused to pay and has kept on her employee roster as her lobbyist for education reform a man convicted of violating campaign laws.

All this makes her unprecedented refusal to answer directly many of the questions reviewed by the bipartisan Office of Government Ethics particularly concerning.  Especially when you consider that even those few disclosures she has made thus far raise serious concerns.  From the NY Times:

Ms. DeVos and her husband, Dick DeVos, have investments in some 250 companies registered to a single Grand Rapids, Mich., address, entities whose investments could take weeks for the ethics office to research. Already, though, there are reports that the DeVoses are indirect investors in Social Finance Inc., a private company that refinances student loans. Private lenders like Social Finance are banned from most of the direct student lending market; their lobbyists have already written to the Trump transition team pitching to change that. That’s only one potential conflict. What if her family has holdings in educational technology or for-profit colleges?

Betsy DeVos and Public Education

You’ll be shocked to learn that DeVos is not a product of the public education system, nor is she someone who relied on public education for her children.  To wit:

DeVos has never taught in a public school, nor administered one, nor sent her children to one. She is a graduate of Holland Christian High School, a private school in her home town of Holland, Michigan, which characterizes its mission thus: “to equip minds and nurture hearts to transform the world for Jesus Christ.”

Her real experience with education is lobbying to privatize and deregulate it (much like her brother’s efforts in the military sphere).  DeVos’ efforts have been most thorough in her home state of Michigan, but also have exerted real influence (through PAC’s, nonprofits and campaign donations) in jurisdictions around the country.  After the DeVos nomination, the Detroit Free Press published a scathing review of DeVos’ influence in Michigan education, listing example after example of how she has used her considerable dollars to push for a privatized but unaccountable education market, both directly and through PACs she has formed.   For example:

This summer, the DeVos family contributed $1.45 million over two months — an astounding average of $25,000 a day — to Michigan GOP lawmakers and the state party after the Republican-led Legislature derailed a bipartisan provision that would have provided more charter school oversight in Detroit.  GLEP also pushed hard — and successfully — to lift the cap on charter schools a few years ago, even though Michigan already had among the highest number of charters in the nation despite statistics suggesting charters weren’t substantively outperforming traditional public schools…. Largely as a result of the DeVos’ lobbying, Michigan tolerates more low-performing charter schools than just about any other state. And it lacks any effective mechanism for shutting down, or even improving, failing charters.

The numbers, and the results, are scary; after DeVos’ efforts, approximately eighty percent of the charter schools in Michigan are for-profit.  Her accomplishments have been so far reaching that national news outlets call DeVos the “Voucher Queen” who is “coming for your public schools” and dedicate articles to “what’s the worst that can happen” if DeVos is confirmed.

Indeed, educational experts are frantic over what a DeVos-headed Department of  will mean for public education. Diane Ravitch, who was appointed to high-level education roles by both Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, published an overview of all the ways “DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”  Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, argued that DeVos’ policies are “demonstrably destructive to public schools and to the educational success of all of our children.”

And there is a groundswell of voices, all raising their concerns over her fitness for the role:

A coalition of more than 200 national nonprofit organizations on Monday sent a letter (see text below) to the Senate Education Committee accusing DeVos of seeking “to undermine bedrock American principles of equal opportunity, nondiscrimination and public education itself.”  The letter was sent by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, composed of groups including the NAACP, the National Urban League, a variety of labor unions, and the League of Women Voters.  Teach For America is a member, as is the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Sierra Club. (You can see the complete list of members here.)

Betsy DeVos and Her Faith Crusade

Betsy DeVos’ work on privatizing and deregulating education is intrinsically tied to her desire to see education become a Christian endeavor.  As Katherine Stewart, author of a book about how Christian fundamentalist groups are attempting to introduce religious doctrine into public schools, recently detailed, DeVos and her husband have been systematically working with multiple faith-based organizations to mainstream their faith into the schools.

The DeVos family has framed these privatizing and evangelizing efforts through the “school choice” terminology, but also were candid, in a 2001 audio recording obtained by Politico, about how they view these efforts as a religious calling:

School choice, they say, leads to “greater Kingdom gain.” The two also lament that public schools have “displaced” the Church as the center of communities, and they cite school choice as a way to reverse that troubling trend. . . .

“It goes back to what I mentioned, the concept of really being active in the Shephelah of our culture — to impact our culture in ways that are not the traditional funding-the-Christian-organization route, but that really may have greater Kingdom gain in the long run by changing the way we approach things — in this case, the system of education in the country,” she says. . . . “It is certainly our hope that churches would continue, no matter what the environment — whether there’s government funding some day through tax credits, or vouchers, or some other mechanism or whatever it may be — that more and more churches will get more and more active and engaged in education,” [DeVos’ husband] said.

These sentiments echo what DeVos was taught at Calvin College, which describes the mission of its graduates as “trying to retake territory that has been captured by the enemy. We are trying to recapture society, culture, and all creation for Jesus Christ.”*  Accordingly, DeVos and her family donate heavily to faith-based organizations who wade into the cultural wars, most notably the Family Research Council, which the Southern Policy Law Center has designated an anti-gay hate group.  Just for context, here’s an excerpt of the FRC’s webpage:

Betsy DeVos and Title IX

As Secretary of Education, DeVos would also have significant influence over the colleges and universities in this country.  Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote DeVos an extremely detailed, 16-page letter that reviews a range of concerns about what DeVos will or will not do about student debt and for-profit institutions.  The short of it gets to this fundamental question: what is DeVos willing to do to protect and advocate for America’s college students and graduates?  It is worth a read in its whole.

But aside from the money, regulation, and conflict of interest concerns addressed above, there is another fundamental concern regarding DeVos and higher education.  What is she going to do to enforce Title IX (a responsibility that sits with the Department of Education)?

Concerns stem from the fact that DeVos gave money to a group that fights efforts by the Department of Education and advocacy groups to strengthen Title IX protections and processes regarding sexual assault and sexual harassment.  In addition, DeVos’ historic support of schools that discriminate against LGBTQ students also raises concerns about how she will enforce those students’ Title IX rights.

This limited information about DeVos’ own views on Title IX, coupled with messages from the Trump team, yield real cause for concern.  Trump listed the Department of Education as the top of his list of departments that should be “largely eliminated.”  Similarly, a senior Trump campaign official “characterized the Office for Civil Rights as unnecessary, calling it “self-perpetuating, absolute nonsense.”  The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights investigates Title IX violations and enforces the law’s mandates.  But experts fear that DeVos “would cut OCR’s budget, effectively limiting the number of investigations it could conduct at a time when the office already struggles to keep pace with the number of cases it has opened.”  In fact, Vice President-Elect Pence has all but promised a scaling back of Title IX protections for LGBTQ individuals, reassuring the founder of the Family Research Council (again, the favorite faith based organization of DeVos family) that “the federal government has no business telling schools how they should accommodate transgender students.”

Specifically addressing the enforcement of Title IX, Republican Senator James Lankford called for the incoming leadership of the Department of Education to “stop the unchecked regulatory overreach,” claiming that it’s current enforcement of Title IX makes it “a dreaded regulatory bully.”  Thus, other concerns include that DeVos will lead the Department of Education to change the standard of proof that is used by schools when considering sexual assault cases to something that resembles a criminal, rather than civil, proceeding — something that would weaken the ability of schools to protect their students from sexual predators.

Accordingly, many education observers see a dismantling of Title IX enforcement — both for sexual assault victims and for transgendered students who are protected by Title IX — as one of the most major but also easiest-to-accomplish shifts that might come with a DeVos Department of Education.  Advocates, responding to this frighteningly likely scenario, launched the #DearBetsy campaign on Monday with the video below:

Those interested in participating in the #DearBetsy campaign can do so by sharing on social media why Title IX enforcement is important to them using the aforementioned hashtag.

* In light of her religion, it is not surprising that DeVos was openly critical of Trump, calling him an “interloper” who did “not represent the Republican Party.”  She expressed her hope that “the more voters know about him, and the more informed they are, the more they’re going to continue to break away [from Trump].”  DeVos changed her positions once she was up for a Secretary of Education position.

Katherine Kimpel

Kate Kimpel is the Senior Editor of Shattering the Ceiling and is also an accomplished civil rights lawyer. She represents women and people of color in discrimination cases (and other kinds of employment and civil rights matters).  When not lawyering, she likely is bragging about her hound dog Ulysses, inventing cocktails to serve at her next dinner party, or convincing her husband to watch reruns of a Joss Whedon television show (any of them will do). 

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