By Alyson Klein and Arianna Prothero
Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department Education, has a long and controversial record of advocating for school choice nationally, but especially in her home state of Michigan. DeVos and her family members have collectively spent tens of millions of dollars to further the issue.
What’s her win/loss record? What kinds of tactics does she use? And why did she even get involved in education in the first place? We break it down in this timeline.
1980s - Early inspiration—Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick, then the parents of school-aged children, visit Potter’s House Christian School in Grand Rapids, a private religious school that intentionally serves a diverse student body. Betsy DeVos credits this visit with awakening her to the power of school choice, including for parents who she said were struggling financially. “We met parents who were doing everything in their power to have their kids in an environment that was safe, where they were learning, and where the atmosphere was just electric with curiosity, with love for one another,” she told the Philanthropy Roundtable in 2013.
1993 - Charter schools— The DeVoses helped support a drive by then-Gov. John Engler to overhaul school funding in the state. The effort, which was ultimately successful, also allowed for the creation of charter schools.
2000 - Voucher amendment defeated—The DeVoses launched an effort to change Michigan’s constitution, which restricts public funds from being used for religious purposes. Their amendment would have required the state to pay for tuition vouchers to students in districts where fewer than two-thirds of kids graduate from high school, or in places where local voters approved the idea.
The state’s Republican governor, John Engler, didn’t think the proposal reached enough students—and he openly worried that it could backfire, driving Democrats to the polls to vote it down and costing Republicans seats in the legislature. The DeVoses spent at least $12.9 million in support of the proposal, more than double the $6 million spent by the teachers’ unions to defeat it. But it went down, 69 to 31 percent.
The DeVoses though, were undeterred. Later that year, they gave an interview at “the Gathering,” a conference of wealthy Christians, and cast the struggle for expanding school choice in biblical terms. More on that in a story from Politico, which was the first to release the interview.
After the voucher amendment defeat, the DeVoses created the Great Lakes Education Project, an advocacy organization and political action committee, to continue promoting their education policy goals in Michigan.
2006 - Gubernatorial run—Dick DeVos, a Republican, ran for governor against Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic incumbent. His platform included greater school choice, but also merit pay for teachers—an idea that Trump would pitch on the campaign trail 10 years later. Dick DeVos also embraced a proposal—backed by a number of Republicans nationally at the time—that would have required at least 65 percent of school funding to go directly to the classroom. And he wanted to create alternative-certification programs to help math and science professionals earn teaching certification quickly.
At around the same time, the DeVos family started the All Children Matter political action committee, which sought to support pro-voucher candidates in at least 10 states. Their efforts targeted anti-voucher Republicans in high places such as a moderate state senator in Arizona, Toni Hellon, who chaired her chamber’s K-12 legislative committee.
And the group didn’t necessarily stick to education. At times, they would tie candidates they wanted to defeat to other issues, such as immigration or same-sex marriage. In an interview with Education Week, Greg Brock, All Children Matter’s executive director, said teachers’ unions and political parties use similar tactics.
2011 - Charter schools expanded—Republicans captured both the governor’s mansion and legislature in the 2010 election, and in late 2011, the state passed legislation that lifted the cap on charter schools and create a pilot program for online charter schools. The bill was backed by the Great Lakes Educational Project. Although initially there was a limit of two schools in the cyber charter pilot, lawmakers lifted the cap on that number a year later.)
The legislation included “no constraints on the proliferation of poor quality charter schools,” said John Austin, a Democrat and the president of the Michigan State Board of Education in an interview with Education Week. He said that the legislation was “in part informed by this mania to take down the traditional public school establishment.” Those efforts he said are “not educating kids but [are] succeeding in sapping the political strength of school districts.”
But GLEP’s executive director, Gary Naeyaert, pushes back against that characterization, saying neither GLEP nor DeVos believe that school choice will solve every issue.
“One of the biggest fallacies out there is that Betsy DeVos would eliminate the traditional system,” he said. “We’re an alternative, not a replacement. We would never stop a parent from choosing a district school. We’re for parental choice.”
2016 - Detroit district’s bailout—Earlier this year, state lawmakers approved a $617 million “rescue package” for financially-foundering Detroit Public Schools. The legislation did not have the backing of any lawmakers from the Motor City, according to the Detroit Free Press, in part because the final bill rejected a move to create a Detroit Education Commission, which would have had oversight over some charter and public schools—in particular where charter campuses can locate. GLEP lobbied against that piece of the legislation, calling it unneeded bureaucracy.
“What we didn’t do was accept an anti-choice Detroit education commission, which was proposed as a mayoral-appointed group that would have tsar-like control of the opening, the closing, and the location of every school in the city,” said Naeyaert.
But Austin described GLEP as strong-arming lawmakers who are hesitant to back the organization’s priorities—on previous legislation involving charter schools and the most recent rescue package for Detroit.
“These legislators were told, ‘if you don’t go along with this vote, we’re gonna finance a primary opponent for you and you’re going to be out of a job,’” said Austin.
How Are Charter Schools Doing in Michigan?
A 2013 national study of charter school performance from Stanford University’s Center for Educational Outcomes found that Michigan charter school students gained an average of 43 days in reading and math compared to their district school counterparts.
But, a 2014 investigation by the Detroit Free Press came to a different conclusion, finding that regular public schools perform slightly better than charters when student poverty is taken into account. And the newspaper’s investigation found that it’s extraordinarily difficult to close low-performing charters in Michigan. The Free Press also cited instances of questionable financial management—for instance, one Michigan charter gave an administrator a severance package worth more than half a million dollars in taxpayer money.
(You can read more about how Betsy DeVos helped shape Michigan’s charter school sector, and how it’s doing, here.)
- Big Achievement Gaps in Charter School Founded by Betsy DeVos’ Husband
- Why Trump’s Plan for a Massive School Voucher Program Might Not Work
- School Choice Advocates Weigh In on Trump’s Education Secretary Pick
A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.