There’s a saying in Washington: “Personnel is policy.”
If that’s true, President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to tap billionaire GOP donor and philanthropist Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education means the country could be hearing a lot about school choice over the next few years.
DeVos, who until recently chaired the American Federation for Children, an advocacy organization, and her husband, Richard “Dick” DeVos Jr., sit at the center of an extensive policy and political ecosystem aimed at expanding choice through charter schools, virtual schools, education saving accounts, and vouchers.
That almost singular focus on school choice offers few other clues to how Betsy DeVos would shape and manage policy for the U.S. Department of Education, a $70 billion federal agency that deals with everything from special education to student loans. Her Nov. 23 pick by Trump awaits confirmation by the U.S. Senate in the new Congress that convenes in January.
DeVos’ background as a philanthropist sets her apart from past education secretaries. Nearly every person who has sat at the helm of the federal department first taught at a public school or university, led a big school district, or worked on education at the state level—roles that generally required them to weigh in on a range of K-12 issues.
DeVos would also be the first secretary in the department’s more than 35-year history who hasn’t been a public school student or parent.
And she has made it clear that she thinks the system could use a shake-up.
“The education establishment is failing students, and every day more and more parents are rising up,” DeVos said in a speech at an AFC event earlier this year. “More and more parents are coming to realize that their children are suffering at the hands of a system built to strangle any reform, any innovation, or any change.”
Those sentiments trouble some educators and civil rights activists, who worry DeVos would use her new perch to redirect federal funds from public schools to private and even religious schools.
“Under the guise of expanded choice, the DeVoses have been the agents of a purposeful effort to dismantle the traditional public schools and teachers’ unions even if the choices that are created don’t educate kids,” said John Austin, the president of the Michigan board of education, a Democrat who recently lost his re-election bid. “I’m pro-choice and pro-charter if it’s quality and about educating kids. They’re for choice for choice’s sake, as a vehicle to try and destroy the existing public school infrastructure.”
But Theresa Weatherall Neal, the superintendent of schools in Grand Rapids, Mich., welcomed the pick. She noted that DeVos and her family have helped the district pay for a leadership coach and generally been supportive of its transformation plan, which includes expanded options for students, such as new schools centered around a theme.
Michigan’s embrace of expanded choice—spurred in large part by the DeVoses’ advocacy—has made her district better, Neal said.
“On choice and competition, we have taken a bit of a different approach than the traditional public education lobby,” Neal said in a statement. “While we have certainly been hurt by choice and charters, we have embraced it, and as a result, have also become a much stronger district and able to compete.”
Over the past two decades, the DeVos family has given millions of dollars to pro-voucher and pro-charter candidates, both through direct contributions and through political action committees, including one associated with the American Federation for Children. The AFC was founded in 2009 and brought together both a school choice-focused non-profit and a political organization to champion the issue. They’ve also helped finance a network of think tanks and advocacy groups that support school choice both at the national level and in their home state of Michigan, such as the Great Lakes Education Project, a bipartisan organization that promotes choice.
Dick DeVos, whose father started Amway—a company that sells household, personal-care, and nutrition products—even opened his own aviation-focused charter school in Grand Rapids.
Donations to pro-voucher and pro-charter lawmakers also are a big focus of their work. Betsy DeVos herself has donated nearly $2.7 million mostly to conservative lawmakers over the past 20 years, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. And the AFC spent about $10.5 million in and on elections in 2014, 2015, and 2016, according to its spokesman.
“We are winning in state after state,” DeVos said at the AFC annual policy forum, held in May outside Washington. “In the past six years, we’ve doubled the number of private-school-choice programs to 50, the number of private-school-choice states to 25, plus Washington, and doubled the number of students currently benefiting from private school choice to 400,000.”
The School Choice Landscape: Enrollment, Costs, and Key Definitions
She ticked off recent school choice victories in Indiana, Louisiana, Nevada, Montana, South Dakota, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and elsewhere.
The nomination likely signals that President-elect Trump is serious about pursuing the only K-12 policy proposal he outlined in some detail on the campaign trail: a $20 billion school choice program financed through existing federal funds, possibly including the roughly $16 billion Title I program, which helps districts cover the cost of educating disadvantaged children.
But that promise may be a tough one to deliver on, said Martin West, an associate professor of education at Harvard University, who worked as a senior policy adviser to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee.
West helped Alexander write legislation that would have given states the option of allowing federal dollars for poor children, students in special education, and other programs to follow children to the schools of their choice. But it failed to pass last year during consideration of the Every Student Succeeds Act when Republicans held more seats in the Senate than they will as of January. And West doesn’t expect that the votes will be there next year.
Trump also has called the Common Core State Standards a “disaster” and pledged to scrap them.
Although the president doesn’t have that power over the standards, Trump’s selection of DeVos has worried some conservative activists because of her association with a prominent common-core champion, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Until recently, DeVos served on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a research and advocacy organization Bush started that has promoted the standards.
But the day Trump tapped her to lead the Education Department, DeVos tweeted that she is not a common-core supporter. On her website, she calls the standards a “federalized boondoggle.”
The Obama administration provided financial incentives that encouraged adoption of the state-developed common core, but ESSA, the main federal K-12 law, doesn’t allow the secretary to tell states which academic standards they can and can’t use.
DeVos’ devotion to school choice seems to be motivated in part by her Christian faith. She told Philanthropy Magazine in 2013 that she was first inspired to join the movement decades ago, during a visit to Potter’s House Christian School in Grand Rapids, a religious school that served some students whose parents struggled to cover tuition.
“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,” DeVos said.
She and her husband spent the next two decades training their focus on school choice, both in Michigan and across the country.
In 1993, they successfully championed legislation to bring charter schools to Michigan. But just seven years later, they were unable to persuade voters to make a change to the state constitution to open the door to a voucher program, despite a nearly $13 million campaign to support it, about twice what teachers’ unions spent to defeat the measure.
The DeVoses were undaunted. Later that year, they gave an interview at “the Gathering,” a conference of wealthy Christians, and cast the struggle for expanding school choice in religious terms, according to a video released by the news site Politico. In the video, the DeVoses also express dismay that public schools—not churches—have become the center of community life.
In 2000, the DeVoses started the Great Lakes Education Project, or GLEP, an advocacy organization and political action committee, to continue promoting their education policy goals in Michigan.
Around that time, they also launched All Children Matter, a political action committee that sought to champion school choice, targeting anti-voucher lawmakers who chaired committees in states that have since become friendlier to school choice, such as Arizona.
All Children Matter didn’t always stick to education. At times, it would tie candidates it wanted to defeat to other issues, such as immigration or same-sex marriage.
The DeVoses were able to further broaden school choice in Michigan, winning passage of legislation in 2011 backed by GLEP that lifted the cap on charter schools and created a pilot program for online charter schools. And in 2016, GLEP helped beat back a move to put in place a new office to beef up oversight of some charter and regular public schools in Detroit, as part of a rescue package for the financially strapped district.
Michigan’s charter schools, a majority of which are run by for-profit organizations, have a mixed record.
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.
Critics of Michigan’s charter school law say its patchwork of authorizers is chaotic and leads to poor-quality charter schools. In 2015, the federal Education Department cited Michigan’s lack of oversight of its authorizers when it denied the state a $45 million grant request through the federal Charter Schools Program.
So will DeVos try to bring Michigan-style school choice to Washington? That’s unclear, said West, of Harvard.
“The big question for anyone moving from state to federal is whether they want to pursue a 50-state solution” or just cheerlead for their favorite policy prescriptions, said West, who was generally critical of Trump during the campaign. West isn’t sure yet which course of action DeVos will take, but he pointed out that she has invested most of her advocacy money and muscle so far at the state level.
“That makes me think she does realize that’s where the action is,” he said.
Staff Writers Corey Mitchell and Arianna Prothero and Assistant Editor Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2016 edition of Education Week as School Choice Is a Primary Focus for Ed. Sec. Pick