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School Choice Advocate Betsy DeVos Named Ed. Sec.: What Does That Mean?

By Alyson Klein & Andrew Ujifusa — November 23, 2016 8 min read
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President-elect Donald Trump has tapped Betsy DeVos, a longtime school choice advocate and Republican mega-donor, to be his education secretary, he announced Wednesday.

DeVos is best known in the school choice world as the chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, an advocacy and research organization that champions school vouchers and tax-credit scholarships. And just hours after her selection, DeVos sent a tweet making it clear that she adamantly opposes the Common Core State Standards, which Trump also has denounced.

“Betsy DeVos is a brilliant and passionate education advocate,” said President-elect Trump in a statement announcing the pick, which is still subject to U.S. Senate confirmation. “Under her leadership we will reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families.”

His statement echoes DeVos’ own rhetoric. Back in 2013, she told Philanthropy magazine that a number of states—including Indiana, Florida, and Arizona—had begun to embrace school choice because “traditional public schools are not succeeding. In fact, let’s be clear, in many cases, they are failing,” she said.

The Education Department doesn’t play a particularly large role when it comes to actually funding and providing oversight for school choice, however, and it’s unclear how much DeVos and Trump would be able to change that.

On common core, Trump has called the standards a “disaster” and said he would like to get rid of them—even though the Every Student Succeeds Act bars the federal government from telling states which standards they can or can’t use. That language was added to the law as a rebuke to the Obama administration, which used money and promises of flexibility to encourage states to adopt the common core.

In a blog post, DeVos, who had previously supported the standards, said she was all for them when they were a state-level initiative, but that they’ve become a “federal boondogle.” DeVos said she does “support high standards, strong accountability, and local control.”

Reaction to the news was split.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, called DeVos an “excellent choice” for education secretary.

“Betsy has worked for years to improve educational opportunities for all children,” Alexander said in his statement. “As secretary, she will be able to implement the new law fixing No Child Left Behind just as Congress wrote it, reversing the trend to a national school board and restoring to states, governors, school boards, teachers, and parents greater responsibility for improving education in their local communities.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the committee, said she would be scrutinizing DeVos’ record closely.

“President-elect Trump has made a number of troubling statements over the course of his campaign on a range of issues that a future Secretary of Education will be charged with implementing and enforcing--from education policy, to civil rights and equality of opportunity, to his personal views on sexual assault and harassment, and more,” Murray said in her statement. “Right now students, parents, teachers and school leaders across the country are demanding to know how his Secretary of Education will ensure the safety and respect of all students, of all backgrounds, all across this country--and I will be focused throughout this process on how his nominee intends to do just that.”

But the National Education Association, a 3-million member union, is also dismayed with the pick, and the message it sends about the direction of Trump’s education policy.

DeVos has “done more to undermine public education than support students,” said Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the NEA in a statement. “She has lobbied for failed schemes, like vouchers—which take away funding and local control from our public schools—to fund private schools at taxpayers’ expense. These schemes do nothing to help our most-vulnerable students while they ignore or exacerbate glaring opportunity gaps. She has consistently pushed a corporate agenda to privatize, de-professionalize and impose cookie-cutter solutions to public education.”

DeVos might not have been Trump’s first pick to the head the Education Department. Rev. Jerry Falwell, the president of Liberty University, told the Associated Press Trump initially offered him the job. But he turned it down for personal reasons.

Background in Philanthropy, Political Advocacy

DeVos, whose father-in-law started the Amway multilevel marketing company, has been active in the Republican Party for decades—she and her husband have given millions of dollars to GOP candidates. She served as chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party from 2003 to 2005. She and her husband, Dick DeVos, successfully pushed for the passage of the Wolverine State’s charter school law in 1993. However, Dick DeVos fell down in his 2000 push to amend to the Michigan Constitution to allow vouchers.

DeVos and her husband gave $2.7 million to Republican candidates this election cycle and none to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

DeVos said in the Philanthropy magazine interview that she was awakened to the power of school choice during a visit to the Potters House Christian School years ago, when she and her husband had school-age children. The couple began giving to the school and pushing for similar choice initiatives. And DeVos’ husband launched a strong challenge against former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm back in 2006. He made a push for expanded choice as part of his platform.

Betsy DeVos’ longtime support for school choice seems like a natural fit for Trump. The president-elect has floated a $20 billion school choice proposal on the campaign trail. He said the program would be financed through existing federal dollars, but didn’t say where the money would come from, or how it would flow to states and districts.

And it’s unclear if such an ambitious school choice proposal could make it through Congress. Alexander introduced a similar measure when Congress was crafting the Every Student Succeeds Act last year, but it failed to garner the votes needed to clear procedural hurdles.

One of DeVos’ primary challenges at the Education Department, assuming she is confirmed by the Senate, will be figuring out a way to translate that plan into some kind of action, said Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. In addition to using the bully pulpit to promote choice in general, Rees also said it would be important for DeVos and the department to make sure there is support beyond Washington for expanding choice in some fashion.

“If we could really engage at least a handful of districts in this discussion, I think we will have made a lot of progress on the issue of school choice,” Rees said.

Robert Enlow, the president and CEO of EdChoice (formerly known as the Friedman Foundation), said “you couldn’t have a more passionate advocate for quality education and parental choice.” He said private school choice would just be part of DeVos’ overall push for educational options.

“I think this signals that Trump is not going to be business as usual when it comes to K-12 education. And this issue [parental choice] is going to be one of the most important things coming out of this administration,” Enlow said. “It’s going to be an exciting time for K-12 education. There’s going to be lots of conversations about how to give parents more options, how do we hold schools accountable.”

Money and Influence

Trump has pledged to “drain the swamp” and get outside influencers out of Washington. It’s unclear how the DeVos pick fits with that vision, given DeVos and her husband’s status as GOP megadonors.

In fact, they are among the top 100 individuals funding outside groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance. During the 2016 campaign cycle the couple gave a total of $2.7 million to Republican candidates, and $1.5 million to political action committees and other funds supporting GOP causes, including American Crossroads, a PAC started by Karl Rove, a senior White House adviser to President George W. Bush.

And DeVos’ husband gave more than $50,000 to “Right to Rise,” a PAC supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination. Bush put out a supportive statement on DeVos’ selection. She sits on the board of his organization, the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Some Democrats, however, criticized the selection. Michigan Board of Education President John Austin, a Democrat, called DeVos’ appointment “destructive for public education.” Austin lost his re-election bid this month.

“Under the guise of expanded choice, the DeVos’ 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,” he said. “I’m pro-choice and pro-charter if it’s quality and about educating kids. They’re for choice for choice sake, as a vehicle to try and destroy the existing public school infrastructure.”

Harrison Blackmond, the state director of Michigan Democrats for Education Reform, said he was concerned about giving the private sector too much power over education under DeVos.

“It’s rather clear that she doesn’t think the federal government should have any role in education, that that should be a strictly state function,” Blackmond said. “I happen to think differently.”

And Peter Cunningham, who served as a top adviser to former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, said school choice is a “tiny, tiny piece of the overall education budget, and a very, very small piece of the agenda” at the Education Department. In theory, he said, the department could make federal formula money conditional on whether states expand school choice, or make competitive grants available that promote choice in some fashion, Cunningham said, as Duncan did through Race to the Top. But both possibilities are extremely remote, he said. And he said there’s “no way in hell” Trump’s $20 billion choice initiative becomes a reality.

“There’s no case for the feds to be funding voucher programs around the country. I don’t’ see any argument for that that she could make,” Cunningham said.

DeVos’ biggest opportunity to promote choice, he added, is through the bully pulpit.

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Corey Mitchell, Associate Editor; Arianna Prothero, Assistant Editor; and Holly Peele, Library Director contributed to this article.