Federal

Betsy DeVos an ‘Attractive Boogeyman’ for Political Campaigns

By Alyson Klein — September 27, 2018 7 min read
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks during a student town hall in Philadelphia in September.
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“Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos wants to decimate funding to our public schools,” warns a Facebook ad from Mikie Sherrill, who is running for an open U.S. House of Representatives seat in New Jersey. Another, from Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who is running for re-election, tells voters, “It’s time to fire Betsy DeVos.”

And in the U.S. Senate race in Nebraska, Democrat Jane Raybould, a Lincoln City councilwoman, attacked Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., in a recent debate for casting the “decisive” vote in favor of DeVos’ confirmation back in 2017.

DeVos’ name won’t appear on any ballots this fall. But Democratic candidates are trying to make her—and her controversial K-12 agenda—part of their campaign to take back the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate, and to win statehouses and governor’s mansions across the country.

In Facebook and television ads, press releases, and debates, they’ve pounced on her proposed cuts to federal education funding and her support for private school vouchers and allowing schools to arm educators, to paint their GOP opponents as anti-public education. And they’ve been quick to highlight donations from her family to their rivals.

In fact, an Education Week review found more than three-dozen instances of DeVos’ name surfacing in races for Congress, governorships, and state attorneys general.

“Betsy DeVos has become a particularly attractive boogeyman,” said Patrick McGuinn, a professor of political science and education at Drew University in New Jersey. “She’s become a symbol of a lot of the fights around education reform and education spending at the local and state level.”

See Also: Education Week‘s U.S. Secretaries of Education background pages offer a deep look at each secretary’s tenure, challenges, and accomplishments.

DeVos is one of the least popular members of Trump’s Cabinet, according to a survey conducted in late April and early May by Politico/Morning Consult. She had a 41 percent unfavorable rating among voters.

And among educators, her approval rating is low as well. Overall, 67 percent of the 1,122 teachers, school, and district leaders surveyed by the Education Week Research Center last year had an unfavorable opinion of President Donald Trump. Even more—72 percent—said they didn’t like DeVos.

“You can go to any audience of educators and say Betsy DeVos’ name and get an immediate groan,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, a 1.75 million-member union that’s been critical of the secretary and her policies. DeVos, she said, is “a proxy for the kind of hostility that this administration has toward public schools, families, children, educators.”

But Tommy Schultz, the national communications director of the American Federation for Children, an advocacy organization DeVos chaired and helped found, doesn’t think the ads have much political juice.

“If a candidate is really spending time and money advertising on a Cabinet secretary, it is likely a losing strategy,” Schultz said.

States still embrace DeVos’ signature issue of school choice, Schultz said, citing recent expansions in Georgia, Illinois, and North Carolina. And he noted that a poll conducted in May and published in Education Next, a journal put out by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, found that 54 percent of respondents support “publicly funded scholarships to private schools” a 9 percent increase over last year.

‘Powerful Family’

Before joining the Trump administration, DeVos was a prolific political donor, mostly to GOP candidates and causes. She’s put that on hold while serving in the Cabinet.

But members of her family continue to contribute to Republican candidates. Democrats have seized on those donations to draw a direct line between their opponents and the unpopular secretary.

In southeastern Florida, Lauren Baer, a former Obama administration staffer, is trying to unseat GOP Rep. Brian Mast, who has accepted $27,000 from DeVos’ relatives, including a brother-in-law Douglas DeVos, the president of Amway, and his wife, Maria. Last month, Baer’s campaign put out a statement highlighting the donation—and linking Mast to DeVos’ support for using federal funds to give firearms to educators, a sensitive issue in Florida, the site of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre.

“Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose family has donated tens of thousands of dollars to [Mast’s] campaign, is proposing using federal dollars to arm teachers—a policy that will put the lives of our children and our teachers at risk,” the Aug. 23 statement said. DeVos has said that schools should be given the option of arming teachers. And she has said that there is nothing in the Every Student Succeeds Act to prevent districts from buying firearms or training teachers to use them with federal dollars—a point that many Democrats challenge.

The Baer campaign also noted that DeVos supported slashing $9 billion out of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget, including money for teacher training and after-school programs. (Congress ultimately rejected those cuts.)

Voters in the area associate DeVos with lack of support for public schools, said Rebecca Lipson, Baer’s campaign manager.

“When we talk to public school teachers here in the district, they feel like they aren’t getting support from the Department of Education,” she said.

In South Florida, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who has worked for nonprofits, also used DeVos’ support for arming teachers to hit her Republican opponent, Rep. Carlos Curbelo. He has taken nearly $20,000 from DeVos’ family, her campaign said.

In Aurora, Colo., Jason Crow, a former U.S. Army Ranger who is running against Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican, jabbed at his opponent for taking $27,000 from DeVos’ family in this election cycle.

“Since the day she took the helm at the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos has run roughshod over our nation’s public schools while Mike Coffman has looked the other way. Now we know why,” said a statement from Mitch Schwartz, Crow’s communications director.

And in DeVos’ home state of Michigan, Elissa Slotkin, a former intelligence analyst, attacked her GOP opponent, Rep. Mike Bishop, for taking more than $10,000 from the “powerful DeVos family.”

It’s not just congressional candidates. Richard Corday, a Democrat and consumer watchdog running for governor of Ohio, has put up a Facebook ad warning that “the DeVos family” and other “big-money special interests” were pouring money into the coffers of his opponent, Mike DeWine, the attorney general. He urged donors to help make up the difference by kicking into his campaign.

Home State Battleground

Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Rep. Dan Kildee, both Michigan Democrats, created similar Facebook ads. In fact, anti-DeVos ads are particularly popular in the secretary’s home state of Michigan.

That’s not surprising, Drew University’s McGuinn said. DeVos and her family have spent more of their money—and been most influential—in Michigan.

“She’s a controversial figure nationally, but she’s a particularly controversial figure in Michigan,” he said.

Democrats have made U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos a target of criticism in the Ohio governor's race and the campaign for U.S. Senator in Michigan, as well as in campaigns in other states.

Democratic candidates are using DeVos’ name as a cudgel on the debate stage. Ben Jealous, a civil rights activist and the Democratic nominee for governor in Maryland, chided his opponent, Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, for appearing at an elementary school with DeVos last year.

“You keep sending money to private schools in the form of vouchers and touring around with Betsy DeVos,” Jealous said in their Sept. 24 debate. Hogan replied that the interaction was limited to sitting with DeVos while she was reading to children—something he did with President Barack Obama’s education secretaries, too.

And in an August debate for the U.S. Senate in Nebraska, Republican Fischer was attacked for being “the deciding” vote on DeVos’ nomination. Raybould, the Democrat, called DeVos a “grossly unqualified” secretary of education who would like to “siphon off millions of dollars of our hard-earned taxpayer money for a private system” of charter schools and vouchers.

Technically, any senator who supported DeVos could be tagged as the “deciding vote” in favor of her confirmation. DeVos was confirmed in February 2017, by a 51-50 vote. Vice President Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote in her favor, after two GOP senators defected.

Such moments drive home just how much DeVos’ rocky confirmation hearing still resonates more than 1½ years after the fact.

“It’s rare that confirmation hearings go viral on the news and social media. But it sure did,” McGuinn said. “She certainty has been the source of much controversy ever since then.”

Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the October 03, 2018 edition of Education Week as Though Not on Any Ballot, DeVos a Campaign Target

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