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DeVos Would Be First Ed. Sec. Who Hasn’t Been a Public School Parent or Student

By Alyson Klein — December 06, 2016 6 min read
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President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, would be the first person to head the department in its more than 35-year history who hasn’t either attended public schools or sent her own children to them.

DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist and GOP political donor who still needs to get through U.S. Senate confirmation before she can assume the helm of the agency, studied at private schools through her entire K-12 career, graduating from Holland Christian High School in Michigan, according to a family spokesman, John Truscott. She later went on to Calvin College.

And DeVos, a school choice and voucher advocate, sent each of her own children to private schools as well, Truscott said. He noted that some of DeVos’ son and daughter-in-laws attended public schools.

“She believes all parents should have access to the same choices her children had,” said Matt Frendewey, a spokesman for the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy organization that DeVos chaired until recently.

DeVos’ background is a departure from all past education secretaries, each of whom either attended public schools for at least a portion of their K-12 schooling, sent their own children to public schools, or both, according to a review by the Education Week Research Center of their records and of published reports.

She’d also be one of only a few secretaries entering the job without experience teaching in a K-12 school, or college; running a university, school system or state education agency, or overseeing public education as a governor, or governor’s education aide. (Want a breakdown of which secretaries went to public school and which went to private, and where they sent their kids? Scroll down.)

Can DeVos make good decisions about public schools without having any personal experience with them? It depends on who you ask.

“The lack of experience in public education for somebody who is going to be the nation’s top policy person on public education is shocking,” said Doug Pratt, the director of public affairs for the Michigan Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “It would be impossible to find somebody less qualified to talk about what happens in a public school. She just doesn’t have the experience as an educator, as a student, as a parent, anything.”

But Frendewey pointed out that President Barack Obama attended elite schools for part of his K-12 educational career and sent his own daughters to prestigious private schools.

“President Obama spent his [formative] K-12 years at the exclusive private Punahou School and he received his undergraduate and law degree from two of the nation’s most exclusive private universities,” Frendewey said. “He later sent his children to the most exclusive private school in Washington, D.C. Does this qualify President Obama as being anti-public schools, or merely anti-choice in so much as he opposes offering low-income families equal opportunities he had a child and he exercised for his own children?”

And he noted that even policymakers who have attended or worked in public schools—such as both of Obama’s education secretaries—aren’t safe from criticism from what he called “the education establishment,” including the presidents of both teachers’ unions.

“The attacks are a result of the education establishment fearing any sort of accountability, any sort of reform and being wildly out of touch with the average parent who supports public charters and school choice,” Frendewey said in an email.

Personal Connection

The past three education secretaries—John B. King Jr., Arne Duncan, and Margaret Spellings—have each spoken publicly about how their own experiences with public schools informed their work.

For instance, back in 2006, Spellings told us that having a child in 8th grade was influential in her roles as both a White House domestic policy advisor and secretary of education. For one thing, it made her sympathetic to parents who show up at school and get hit with a tidal wave of jargon.

“I have a feeling for what parents experience when they go into a school and hear about, you know, AYP [adequate yearly progress] and HQT [highly qualified teacher] and Read 180 and Success for All,” said Spellings, who served at the helm of the department during President George W. Bush’s second term. " [It’s a] ‘what the heck are they talking about’ kind of thing, and I’m the secretary of education. I mean obviously I know what they’re talking about, but only because I’ve had years of practice.”

King, who was orphaned at an early age, attended Public School 276 and Mark Twain Junior High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., as well as the prestigious Phillips Andover Academy, a private boarding school. (King cut class at Andover, was expelled and ultimately moved in with family in Cherry Hill, N.J.) King credits New York City public school teachers with “saving my life” and making him feel safe and valued during a tumultuous period.

What’s more, King, who has made school integration a focus of his short tenure at the helm of the department, has also spoken in interviews about his decision to send his own daughters to public schools in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public School system, a diverse and highly regarded district.

Similarly, Duncan, who attended the University of Chicago’s Laboratory School, a private school, sent his own kids to diverse schools in the northern Virginia, and said that the integration there was really important to him and his wife.

So, for your next trivia night, where did other education secretaries go to school? And where did they send their own children?

Here’s what we were able to find out:

John B. King Jr. - Serving under Obama. Attended P.S. 276 and Mark Twain Junior High in Brooklyn, N.Y. Attended Phillips Andover Academy but was expelled. Sends his daughters to public school in Montgomery County, Md. Was a high school social studies teacher and state chief in New York.

Arne Duncan - Served under Obama. Attended University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Children attended public schools in northern Virginia. Was superintendent of Chicago public schools.

Margaret Spellings - Served under George H.W. Bush. Attended public schools in Houston, graduating from Sharpstown High School. Sent her daughters to public schools in Virginia as well as private Catholic schools.

Roderick Paige - Served under Bush. Attended Lawrence County Training High School, Monticello, Miss. Unclear if his own children attended public school. Was superintendent of Houston public schools, and taught health and physical education.

Richard Riley - Served under President Bill Clinton. Attended Greenville Senior High School in South Carolina. Sent his kids to public schools. Former governor of South Carolina.

Lamar Alexander - Served under President George H.W. Bush. Attended Maryville High School in Maryville, Tenn. Sent his own kids to private school. Served as governor of Tennessee, and as president of the University of Tennessee before becoming secretary. Now Senate education committee chairman.

Lauro F. Cavazos - Served under George H.W. Bush under President Ronald Reagan. Attended the Flato School, a public school in Kingsville, Texas. Was the president of Texas Tech University, and taught at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston before becoming secretary.

William J. Bennett - Served under Reagan. Briefly attended P.S. 92 in New York City before switching to parochial school. Sent his own kids to Georgetown Preparatory School, a private school.

Terrel H. Bell - Served under Reagan. Attended a one-room public school in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho. Served as a chemistry teacher, district superintendent and state chief. Unclear if his own children attended public school.

Shirley Hufstedler - Served under President Jimmy Carter. Attended 12 different schools, graduating from Albuquerque High School in New Mexico. Unclear if her son attended public school.

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Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.