Education Funding

Charter School Booster and Billionaire, Eli Broad, Urges Senators to Drop DeVos

By Arianna Prothero — February 01, 2017 3 min read
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Influential charter school booster and philanthropist Eli Broad is urging senators to vote against confirming fellow billionaire and school choice advocate, Betsy DeVos.

While underscoring that he does not know DeVos personally, and that he believes she cares for children, Broad wrote in a letter that he was troubled by DeVos’ performance in her confirmation hearing.

“Before Mrs. DeVos’s hearing, I had serious concerns about her support for unregulated charter schools and vouchers as well as the potential conflicts of interest she might bring to the job,” Broad writes in his letter addressed to Senate Majority and Minority Leaders, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “Her testimony not only reinforced my concerns but also added to them.”

DeVos had some shaky moments during her confirmation hearing, including one where she appeared confused over whether all public schools must follow federal special education laws.

DeVos and her husband, Richard DeVos Jr.'s, approach to philanthropy and advocacy in the school choice movement seems driven by free-market principles: the idea that states should offer as many choices as possible—charter schools, voucher-funded private schools, online schools, for-profit and nonprofit-managed schools—and let parents, through the choices they make, weed out the bad options.

Eli and his wife Edythe Broad are among some of the most influential backers of charter schools nationally and in their home city of Los Angeles. Their foundation has given over $150 million to charter schools nationally. Of that, $79 million has gone to charters in Los Angeles. (The Broad Foundation has supported coverage in Edweek of policy, government and politics, and systems leadership. Education Week retains sole editorial control of that coverage.)

In comparison to DeVos’ philanthropic work, the Broads belong to a class of donors that prefer a much more managed approach to school choice, investing in charter school models that can scale up and measure their performance. They are strong supporters of charter management organizations—nonprofit networks of charter schools (think KIPP)—whose rapid growth has been propelled by the federal government and a handful of wealthy donors.

One of the Broad Foundation’s most high-profile initiatives is its annual Broad Prize, which recognizes high-performing charter management organizations.

In many ways DeVos is not a traditional pick for education secretary: she’s never been a governor, school superintendent, or college president. As a philanthropist and advocate her work as been fairly narrowly focused on school choice policies such as charter schools and school vouchers.

Broad’s letter came on the same day as two Republican senators announced that they plan to vote against DeVos’ confirmation. Both Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska hail from rural states. Both raised concerns over DeVos’ hyper-focus on school choice and her overall knowledge of public schools.

Only one more Republican needs to break with the party to sink DeVos’ nomination, but GOP leaders say they are confident DeVos will ultimately be confirmed as the next secretary of education.

Here’s Broad’s full letter:

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Photo: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., left, sits in his office with Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, before the start of their meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Dec. 1. —Susan Walsh/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.