Trump’s choice for U.S. secretary of education has history of promoting school “choice”

November 23, 2016

Betsy DeVos

President-elect Donald Trump has named Betsy DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist with a long history of promoting charter schools and tax-supported vouchers for private school tuition, to be secretary of education in his administration.

“I am honored to work with the President-elect on his vision to make American education great again,” she wrote on Twitter. “The status quo in ed is not acceptable.”

DeVos, 58, is married to multibillionaire Dick DeVos, the son of Amway co-founder Richard DeVos. She comes from a wealthy family in her own right: her late father was Edgar Prince, an industrialist who founded the Prince Company, a successful auto parts supplier in Michigan. Her brother Erik is the controversial founder of the Blackwater security firm.

Teachers union representatives, however, were highly critical of the appointment. “Taking public money for private vouchers is out of step with California values,” said California Teachers Association president Eric Heins.

In a similar vein, Ryan Smith, executive director of Ed Trust–West in Oakland, which focuses on closing the achievement gap, said: “We would vigorously oppose any agenda that would divert resources from students who need them the most to fund a misguided voucher program.”

The announcement came a day after Michelle Rhee – the former head of public schools in the District of Columbia who now lives in Sacramento where her husband Kevin Johnson is mayor – withdrew her name from contention.

“I have appreciated the opportunity to share my thoughts on education with the PEOTUS,” she wrote in a statement posted on Twitter on Tuesday, using the acronym for president-elect of the United States.

During Trump’s campaign, the most specific education proposal he made was to set up a $20 billion fund to provide government-funded vouchers to all low-income children in the United States to attend schools of their choice – whether private schools, charter schools, magnet schools or traditional public schools.

DeVos’ appointment suggests that this will be a campaign promise that Trump will try to follow through on, or at least some version of it.

DeVos has been involved in numerous education organizations and causes, especially in her home state of Michigan. But the issue she is most closely identified with is promoting school choice options, typically outside the public schools.

She is chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, whose mission, sounding strikingly similar to Trump’s campaign declaration on the issue, is to “empower parents, particularly those in low-income families, to choose the education they determine is best for their children.”

She and her husband started a charter school in Grand Rapids, the West Michigan Aviation Academy. In 2000, the couple underwrote an unsuccessful statewide initiative that called for issuing tax-supported vouchers to cover private school tuition. More recently, her husband led an effort in the Legislature to make Michigan a “right to work” state, which would have slashed teacher contributions to unions.

John Affeldt, the education program director at Public Advocates, a public interest law firm headquartered in San Francisco,   said rather than trying to create a “few escape valves” through nonpublic school alternatives for some children, “we need to make the whole system work.” He said private and parochial schools don’t have the capacity to address all the needs of low-income children. “We have to make the public schools work for everybody, instead of starving them of resources and blaming them for underperformance,” he said.

What was far less clear until DeVos was selected was where she stood on the Common Core standards, which may have been another factor in her selection. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly called for a repeal of the standards, calling them a “disaster,” and going after Jeb Bush early in the campaign for his support of the standards.

DeVos has supported a range of organizations that support the Common Core standards, including sitting on the board of the Foundation for Educational Excellence, which was founded by Jeb Bush, and is currently its chairman. The former Florida governor praised DeVos as an “outstanding pick” who has a “long and distinguished history championing the right of all parents to choose schools that best ensure their children’s success.”

She has been subjected to a barrage of criticism from anti-Common Core groups for her apparent pro-Common Core stance. Some of that criticism was published by Breitbart News as recently as the day she was nominated. Breitbart is the same news outlet previously run by Steve Bannon, Trump’s closest adviser. In response, DeVos appears to have updated her website to say that she is “opposed to the Common Core – period,” and sent out a tweet to draw attention to her stance within hours of her selection.

In contrast, Rhee’s enthusiastic backing of the standards may have been a crucial factor in her not getting the post, or not being interested in it.

In withdrawing from consideration, Rhee pushed back against other Democrats, including those who would typically be allies, for considering the post. Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, issued a statement saying that a Democrat who took the top spot in the department “would become an agent for an agenda that both contradicts progressive values and threatens grave harm to our nation’s most vulnerable kids.”

“Interestingly many colleagues warned me against doing so (meeting with Trump),” Rhee wrote in a pointed rebuttal. “They are wrong. Mr. Trump won the election. Our job as Americans is to want him to succeed. Wishing for his failure would be wanting the failure of our millions of American children who desperately need a better education.”

Democrats need no longer worry about one of their own becoming head of a department that Trump has said he wants to eliminate or, at the least, shrink in size and influence. In DeVos, he has chosen a blue-blood Republican – one who espouses many of the core positions that the GOP has espoused on education in recent years and that many core Democratic constituencies have opposed.

“In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, echoing the statement by Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the president of the National Education Association.

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