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Who Is Part of Ed. Sec. Nominee Betsy DeVos’ Policy Circle?

By Alyson Klein — December 14, 2016 7 min read
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Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for U.S Secretary of Education, may just be starting to think about who she might want on her staff at the U.S. Department of Education next year. After all, she and Trump have about 150 political appointee gigs to fill at the agency.

In filling posts, DeVos could decide to tap people she already knows and has worked well with. Education secretaries often bring close associates from their previous jobs into the department with them. (Think Peter Cunningham, who headed up communications at the department for former Obama administration Secretary Arne Duncan and had worked with Duncan previously in Chicago.)

DeVos could decide to draw from a deep pool of folks she has worked with in education advocacy and political offices, including at the American Federation for Children, a political and advocacy organization she chaired until recently. Many of them have ties to her home state of Michigan, including Josh Venable, a one-time aide to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is said to be helping with the transition. Like DeVos, they’ve been active in Republican politics, especially, and school choice. Also like DeVos, most haven’t served in state education agencies or school districts, at least not in recent years.

So who has worked with DeVos in the past and could therefore wind up serving in the department, or at least holding sway with the Trump administration on K-12?

Here’s a quick list, in alphabetical order:

Greg Brock, executive director, American Federation for Children:

Brock has worked with the DeVoses in a number of different education and political organizations, including his current gig at AFC. Over the past five years AFC has advanced school choice in a number of states, including Indiana, Nevada and Wisconsin, according to a speech DeVos gave at the organization’s annual policy forum near Washington earlier this year. The organization writes model legislation to help state lawmakers push vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax credits for school choice. (Read more about AFC here.)

In the 2000s, Brock ran All Children Matter, a political action committee financed by DeVos and her husband, Richard “Dick” DeVos. The committee sought to elect lawmakers who were friendly to school choice, and target those who weren’t, including anti-voucher Republicans. And it sometimes linked candidates to issues beyond education, such as illegal immigration or same-sex marriage. Brock told Education Week back in 2006 that teachers’ unions and other opponents of school choice use similar tactics. UPDATE: All Children Matter has had an outstanding $5.2 million fine from the state of Ohio since 2008, which Democratic senators have said the group must pay ahead of DeVos’ confirmation hearing.

Brock was also the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, an education advocacy organization founded and funded by the DeVoses. And before that, he served as the campaign director for “Kids First! Yes!”, a campaign financed by the DeVoses to promote a voucher amendment to the Michigan state constitution. (The effort was ultimately unsuccessful.) He’s also the one-time executive director of the Michigan Republican Party, which Betsy DeVos chaired.

Matt Frendewey, communications director, American Federation for Children:

Frendewey has worked in communications for AFC, but also for the Michigan Republican Party and Michigan Attorney General Michael Cox. He also worked on Cox’s campaign in the 2002 election cycle. Earlier this year, Frendewey described the organization’s work to my colleague Lisa Stark, saying, “We believe that, ultimately, parents have the right to know where people stand on core issues whether it’s, say, support school choice, oppose school choice. We’ll continue to support those candidates who believe in a parent’s right to choose.”

Greg McNeilly, chief operating officer of the Windquest Group, a company lead by Dick and Betsy DeVos:

McNeilly has a long record both in GOP politics and with the DeVos family. He served as the campaign manager for Dick DeVos’ ultimately unsuccessful bid for governor of Michigan in 2006. And he was an architect of Michigan’s Right to Work law, according to this Mother Jones profile of the DeVos family. On the education front, he was the communications director of “Kids First! Yes!” And from 1998 to 2000, he served as a political director for the Michigan Republican Party. He’s also currently on the board of GLEP. In the Wolverine State, he’s known as an unofficial gatekeeper to Betsy and Dick DeVos.

John Schilling, chief operating officer, American Federation for Children:

Schilling has been at AFC for nine years. Before that, he was the chief of staff for the Education Leaders Counsel, a group of conservative state education chiefs and other leaders. Schilling left the organization in 2003, according to a resume posted on LinkedIn. After his departure, the ELC faced leadership and management challenges. It eventually shuttered. Before his stint at the ELC, Schilling served as an associate superintendent in charge of policy and planning for the Arizona Department of Education. And before that, he had a variety of other gigs in GOP politics, including as director of opposition research for the Republican National Committee.

Josh Venable, former national director of advocacy and legislation at the Foundation for Excellence in Education:

Venable is also part of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s inner circle. He was the national director of advocacy and legislation for Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, a research and advocacy organization. Until recently, DeVos sat on the board of that organization, which has some parents opposed to the Common Core State Standards worried she won’t be tough enough on the standards. (Federal law would prohibit her as education secretary from getting rid of them anyway.) Beyond that, Venable is yet another Michigan Republican Party alum. Venable served in a bunch of different roles there, from 2005 to 2011, including deputy finance director and chief of staff.

Venable is helping with the transition, multiple sources say. He’s been at DeVos’ side as she gets to know folks in Washington.

Other names to know:

Rob Goad, a Trump campaign aide on loan from the office of Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., who has now officially joined the transition. Messer was on nearly everyone’s list as a potential Trump education secretary, and he may still end up playing a role—perhaps informally—in helping the administration put together its education agenda. Goad isn’t a longtime DeVos confidante associate like many of the other folks on this list, but it’s easy to imagine him ending up at the department in some capacity. Towsend McNitt, a former GOP Hill staffer and Education Department official, is also helping with the transition, introducing DeVos to key folks in Congress. (Hat tip: Politico.)

Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchor and the founder of the 74 Million, a journalism and advocacy website, which received some start-up money from the DeVos’ foundation. Brown has said she will recuse herself from coverage of DeVos’ tenure as education secretary, and Brown has said the organization will stop receiving money from DeVos’ foundation. Don’t look for Brown to join the Education Department. She told Politico she’s not interested in a gig there. She did, however, write a warm blog post in support of DeVos’ nomination.

Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project School choice is a big focus for GLEP. Back in 2011, the organization fought to raise the cap on charters, and earlier this year it helped defeat a measure to create a Detroit Education Commission that would have had oversight over some charter and public schools in the Motor City. More background on how charters in Michigan are doing here.

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

Betsy DeVos is shown during a news conference on June 15, 2006, in Lansing, Mich. Republican women from the state House and Senate as well as business organizations held a Women for DeVos Coalition news conference to announce their support for her husband, GOP gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos. --Al Goldis/AP-File

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