Federal Opinion

DeVos Confirmation Will Shine a Spotlight on Dark Money

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — January 10, 2017 6 min read
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Betsy DeVos is likely to be confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education. Those who call themselves educational “reformers” are licking their chops. The Wall Street Journal applauded her trench warfare fights for charters and vouchers, and editorialized that one of her “tasks will be leveraging her bully pulpit and federal dollars to extend this progress to the states, where most education money is spent.”

Money is the operative word. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, wrote that DeVos was a great candidate for secretary because she already had a lot of money. Because DeVos is a successful businesswoman she “doesn’t need a job now, nor will she be looking for an education job later.”

In Romney-think, people who work in education are tainted because they are willing to organize and express their economic as well as their professional interests.

Money and Politics

But DeVos understands political interests, and that money is the mother’s milk of politics. And she does expect something in return. In a 1997 op-ed, she wrote, “My family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party ... I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence,” the piece reads. “Now, I simply concede the point. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment; we expect a good and honest government. Furthermore, we expect the Republican Party to use the money to promote these policies and, yes, to win elections.”

Applause! At last, we see an honest politician! Betsy DeVos wants something, and she knows how to spread money around to get it. As Detroit Free Press editorial page editor Stephen Henderson wrote, last 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.”

That kind of money can turn around a legislature as it did in Michigan. Bought and paid for!

Dark Money

And what one sees in the Michigan legislature is just the money that shows. As Jane Mayer documents in Dark Money, and in this commentary about the education secretary nominee, the DeVos family has been a faithful ally of Charles and David Koch for years. They have repeatedly turned up on lists of Koch donor summits. Here, courtesy of Mother Jones, is text and a graphic on the DeVos family giving tree or at least the visible parts.

As Mayer writes in Dark Money [reviewed here], the secret to dark money is keeping its aspirations hidden. When David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket, he got just one percent of the vote. When the DeVos family bankrolled a voucher initiative in Michigan, 68 percent of voters said no.

The dark money strategy has always been to stay out of the spotlight. “The whale that spouts is the one that gets harpooned,” Charles and David’s father, Fred, used to say.

Staying in the shadows has allowed the Koch operation to gain stunning victories in state legislatures and to successfully connect Tea Party populism with hundreds of billions in corporate and personal wealth.

Now, the dark money is going to get more visible. Koch operatives and friends, including Vice President Elect Mike Pence, are populating the White House, the transition team, and the cabinet.

In education, we are going to find out quickly that there are things that the Kochs and DeVos want that main street America doesn’t. There are roughly 13, 500 school districts in the U.S., most of them in small towns and rural locations. Each of those districts has a school board, and although they don’t run on party labels most of the board members are probably Republicans.

Just like Betsy DeVos, these school board members have political interests. But their view of limited government and traditional American values is likely to be quite different than that of the dark money billionaires:

Traditional public schools. For the most part, school board members believe in traditional public schools. They take pride in the town or community where they live and they see the school district as a demonstration of local democracy. They believe in school superintendents who are experienced educators and teachers that are trained and have the proper licenses. And they know that they are in short supply.

When you live in a small town or rural area, “choice” is a pretty abstract and far-fetched concept. Schools mostly belong to neighborhoods.

Good government. For the most part, school board members believe in honest government. The level or ordinary corruption and self-dealing among them is extraordinarily low. Fiscal transparency, which DeVos opposed in Detroit, means a lot. Most of these school board members don’t like hardball politics, which is a DeVos trademark. Most of these school board members are Christians, but most believe with Thomas Jefferson that strong religion is best separated from government, and not the object of a religious takeover.

Science. For the most part, school board members believe in science. When a school board is captured by a group of Creationists, they often become a local embarrassment, and opposition builds. School board members who live close to the land know that climate change is real, unlike the Koch Brothers , they are not inclined to deny it.

Standards. For the most part, school board members want to have some yardsticks about what students should learn. National standards offend many of them and the Common Core has become a bad brand, but board members rely on benchmarks they get from their states and results from the SAT or ACT that are given nationwide. They care about graduation rates, who takes AP exams, who gets suspended from school, and they rely on state and federal governments to give them honest data.

Adequate Revenue. For the most part, school board members are fiscally conservative, but they are not anti-tax. In property tax driven states (not California) board members take the lead in advocating for taxes to increase operating revenue. They know that DeVos’ voucher and charter school schemes drain revenue from their schools, and they can see the results at the micro level, where teachers have to be laid off or programs trimmed.

The success of dark money has been predicated on the attraction of its symbols—down home values, a distrust of elites, and distain for what Trump famously called the “donor class"— rather than the reality of what happens when dark money’s values become public policy. It would be hard to find a better example of the donor class than DeVos.

The reality is bad. There is ample evidence that Betsy DeVos’ policies are a disaster for public education in Detroit, Michigan, North Carolina, Oklahoma. But The Detroit Free Press calls DeVos “willfully impervious to the relevant data.”

She’s not going to be persuaded by the data, any more than Trump will admit that espionage made his election illegitimate.

What will matter a large majority of people in the cities and in the heartland have different political interests than she does. We think that our traditional values are more American than hers, that our belief in government is more authentic, and that our belief in an education system is more persuasive than her belief that the free market will care for our children.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.