People For the American Way

Betsy DeVos Nomination a New High-Water Mark in Right Wing’s Long War on Public Education

Betsy DeVos Nomination a New High-Water Mark in Right Wing’s Long War on Public Education
a katz / Shutterstock, Inc.

The right wing’s long-term campaign to undermine public education is a battle being waged on multiple fronts. Public education’s enemies include religious conservatives who want public tax dollars to support schools that teach religious dogma, ideological opponents of government and public sector unions, and sectors of corporate America who see profits to be skimmed or scammed from the flow of tax dollars devoted to education. Billionaire Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee to be U.S. Secretary of Education, has been actively engaged on all these fronts. DeVos, who like Trump celebrates being “politically incorrect,” has harsh words for the education establishment, declaring in a 2015 speech at an education conference, “Government really sucks.”

DeVos has been, in the words of Mother Jones’s Kristina Rizga, “trying to gut public schools for years.”  Indeed, as the New York Times noted, it is “hard to find anyone more passionate about the idea of steering public dollars away from traditional public schools.” In addition to these ideological concerns, DeVos is simply unqualified for the job: she has never been a teacher, school administrator, or even state-level education policy bureaucrat. She did not attend public schools and neither did her children.

With the DeVos nomination, Religious Right activists have drawn a step closer to achieving the anti-public-education dream that the late Jerry Falwell did not live to see fully implemented: “I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools,” Falwell wrote in 1979. “The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!”

At the same time, if DeVos is confirmed, anti-government and anti-union ideologues will have taken a major step toward the late Milton Friedman’s vision of completely privatizing public education. Friedman, intellectual godfather of the voucher movement, said “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a free-market system.”

There is some ideological overlap between the libertarian and Christianist designs on public education. Many Religious Right leaders have embraced the teaching of Christian Reconstructionists that the Bible does not give the government any role in education; hard-core limited government “constitutional conservatives” believe there is no legitimate federal role in education.  Milton Friedman, an intellectual godfather of the privatization movement, told a 2006 meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council that it would be “ideal” to “abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it,” but since that wasn’t politically feasible, money spent on education should be converted into vouchers.

The DeVos Family Has Played a Key Role in Building Right-Wing Anti-Public-Education Infrastructure

Betsy DeVos is the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, Edgar Prince, and married the son of a wealthy businessman, Richard DeVos; the families have been major funders of the Republican Party and right-wing think tanks and advocacy organizations. For example, the Family Research Council’s Washington, D.C. headquarters and distribution center in Michigan were built with millions from the DeVos and Prince clans. DeVos also served for a decade on the board of the Acton Institute, which provides religious rationales for right-wing economic policies. The DeVos family has promoted anti-LGBT policies and its anti-union lobbying helped turn Michigan into a so-called “Right to Work” state

Betsy DeVos and her extraordinarily wealthy family have helped to build the Religious Right’s political and policy infrastructure; lobbied for legislation to expand charter schools programs and protect them from regulation and oversight; promoted vouchers and related tax schemes to steer money away from public schools; and poured money into political attacks on elected officials, including Republicans, who resist their plans for the privatization of education. Putting DeVos in charge of the Department of Education is not just having the fox guard the henhouse, says writer Jay Michaelson, it is giving the job to the slaughterer.

An April 2016 report from Media Matters on the “tangled network of advocacy, research, media, and profiteering that’s taking over public education” highlighted some of the many organizations DeVos has been involved in:

Betsy DeVos is also the co-founder and current chair of the boards at the anti-teachers-union state advocacy groups Alliance for School Choice and American Federation for Children (AFC) and a close friend of teachers union opponent Campbell Brown, who also serves on AFC’s board. DeVos also sits on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Through the DeVos Family Foundation, the DeVoses have given millions to anti-teachers union and pro-privatization education groups; recent tax filings show donations to the Alliance for School Choice, the American Enterprise Institute, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Heritage Foundation, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options, and the Institute for Justice. The foundation is listed as a supporter of Campbell Brown’s The 74 education website. Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children further connects the DeVos family to right-wing corporate reform groups; it is listed as an education partner of the right-wing-fueled National School Choice Week campaign and counts at least 19 additional groups in this guide as national allied organizations, and its affiliated Alliance for School Choice group is an associate member of the State Policy Network of conservative think tanks.

As the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has noted, Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon mocked “the donor class” during the presidential campaign, but “it would be hard to find a better representative of the ‘donor class’ than DeVos.”

School Choice as P.R. Campaign vs. School Choice in Reality

Among the many efforts supported by DeVos and her organizations is a national “School Choice Week” held every year in January. It’s all about putting a shiny happy face on school privatization efforts, complete with bright yellow scarves for kids, an “official” dance to be performed at local events, and national publicity support for what organizers say will be more than 20,000 events this January 22-28 – more than 2,000 of them held by homeschooling groups. The President of National School Choice Week, Andrew Campanella, used to work at the Alliance for School Choice, whose board is chaired by Betsy DeVos.

School Choice Week is intentionally designed to blur the very real and significant differences between policies that fall under the broad banner of “school choice.” There’s a huge difference between a school district offering magnet schools and the diversion of funds away from school districts to for-profit cyberschools, but National School Choice Week treats them all the same, with a “collective messaging” approach that hides the anti-public-education agendas of some education “reformers” by wrapping them all together in the language of parental empowerment and student opportunity.

The Failures of Market Fundamentalism

Advocates for school choice tend to promote “magic of the marketplace thinking,” believing that deregulation, competition and limited government oversight will automatically produce better results than “government schools.” But while DeVos and her fellow “revolutionaries” posture as champions for children against an indifferent “blob” of self-interested teachers and bureaucrats, the “reformers” don’t have a convincing track record when it comes to improving student accomplishment overall. Indeed, as Tulane University’s Douglas Harris argues, “The DeVos nomination is a triumph of ideology over evidence that should worry anyone who wants to improve results for children.”

Charter Schools and Michigan’s Mess

Advocates for various forms of “school choice” can point to mixed results from programs that they have put in place. Some charter schools, for example, do a good job, but many do not. And the biggest cautionary tale for those who want to expand such programs is, interestingly enough, precisely the place where DeVos has played the biggest role. As The New York Times reported:

Michigan is one of the nation’s biggest school choice laboratories, especially with charter schools. The Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids school districts have among the nation’s 10 largest shares of students in charters, and the state sends $1 billion in education funding to charters annually. Of those schools, 80 percent are run by for-profit organizations, a far higher share than anywhere else in the nation…

But if Michigan is a center of school choice, it is also among the worst places to argue that choice has made schools better. As the state embraced and then expanded charters over the past two decades, its rank has fallen on national reading and math tests. Most charter schools perform below the state average.

And a federal review in 2015 found “an unreasonably high” percentage of charter schools on the list of the state’s lowest-performing schools. The number of charter schools on that list had doubled since 2010, after the passage of a law a group financed by Ms. DeVos pushed to expand the schools. The group blocked a provision in that law that would have prevented failing schools from expanding or replicating.

An earlier New York Times story reported, “Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools. It got competition, and chaos…”

While the idea was to foster academic competition, the unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles. Leaders of charter and traditional schools alike say they are being cannibalized, fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.

Politico has also turned a skeptical eye toward the DeVos-backed experiment in Michigan:

Critics say Michigan’s laissez-faire attitude about charter-school regulation has led to marginal and, in some cases, terrible schools in the state’s poorest communities as part of a system dominated by for-profit operators. Charter-school growth has also weakened the finances and enrollment of traditional public-school districts like Detroit’s, at a time when many communities are still recovering from the economic downturn that hit Michigan’s auto industry particularly hard.

The results in Michigan are so disappointing that even some supporters of school choice are critical of the state’s policies.

Education “revolutionaries” like DeVos argue that expanding charter school operations will boost public schools through competition. But a November 2016 report by the Economic Policy Institute on the consequences of charter school expansion in America’s cities found that charter expansions put increased stress on public schools. It also documented problems with conflicts of interest and financial malfeasance among private managers and charter management firms.

Corruption in the charter school industry has also been identified as a problem by education historian Diane Ravitch. “There are all kinds of deals,” she says. “And the biggest and sleaziest deal of all is the charter operators, the for-profit operators, in particular, who buy a piece of property and then rent it to themselves at a rental that’s three, four, five, 10 times the market rate, and they make tons of money, not on the school, but on the leasing.” In a 2014 exposé on charter schools’ lack of accountability, the Detroit Free Press reported, among other things, that one charter school had spent $1 million on swampland.

The EPI report found another major problem:

Expansion of charter schooling is exacerbating inequities across schools and children because children are being increasingly segregated by economic status, race, language, and disabilities and further, because charter schools are raising and spending vastly different amounts, without regard for differences in student needs. Often, the charter schools serving the least needy populations also have the greatest resource advantages.

The report’s authors concluded:

To the extent that charter expansion or any policy alternative increases inequity, introduces inefficiencies and redundancies, compromises financial stability, or introduces other objectionable distortions to the system, those costs must be weighed against expected benefits.

The American Federation of Teachers’ Randy Weingarten describes DeVos as “a principal cheerleader of the practice of using the exponential growth of unregulated and unaccountable charters to destabilize, defund, decimate and privatize public education.” Adds Weingarten, “These consequences are why the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have called for a moratorium on charter schools and why the mayor of Detroit worked to establish some commonsense oversight of this sector. They’re also why voters rejected charter expansion initiatives in Georgia and Massachusetts this November.”

Voucher Movement’s ‘Four-Star General’

“Perhaps even more than her push for charter schools, Betsy DeVos is known as a fierce advocate for the expansion of vouchers,” noted a recent Mother Jones article. Indeed, she has been called “the four-star general of the voucher movement.”

Even more damaging than uncontrolled expansion of unaccountable charter schools would be the expansion of school vouchers. Education scholar Dana Goldstein has argued that the Trump’s pick of the pro-voucher DeVos— and his campaign’s call for a $20 billion federal voucher system“could gut public education.” Mother Jones’ Kristina Rizga notes that Trump’s voucher plan could divert some Title I funding, which now supports low-income schools, to “high-income private and religious schools,” which would mean “the erosion of one of the most important federal school programs created to serve America’s most vulnerable kids.”

And this would be in spite of voucher programs’ documented failures. Here’s Goldstein:

Recent studies of voucher programs in Louisiana and Ohio found that students who use vouchers to attend a private school score, on average, lower on standardized tests than demographically similar students who do not use vouchers. In New Orleans, two years after winning a private school voucher, the average student had lost 13 points of learning in math…

Public school student achievement in New Orleans has improved in recent years, in part because of increased family choice among nonprofit charter schools. But according to Douglas Harris, an economist at Tulane University and director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, “We’ve never seen an effect as negative as the private school voucher program.”

At Vox, Libby Nelson reports that of 20 studies by the pro-voucher Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, 10 of them “found vouchers had no effect on participants’ test scores at all.”

On the whole, while some studies have found a modest improvement in test scores, particularly for black students, there’s far from a resounding consensus from studies of citywide voucher programs.

Meanwhile, recent studies of newer statewide voucher systems in Louisiana and Ohio found that students who used vouchers actually fell behind academically, particularly in math. The pro-voucher Fordham Foundation, which analyzed Ohio’s program, was honest that it found those results dismaying: “We did not expect — or, frankly, wish — to see these negative effects for voucher participants,” the researchers wrote.

Nelson warns that the worst-case scenario for this kind of scheme could be that “bad private schools proliferate, and public schools get worse.”

Online Schools: Virtually No Accountability

Even worse is the track record of for-profit cyberschools, or “online academies,” another “choice” option championed by DeVos and her allies. A recent story by the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss reported on a stakeholder challenge to K12 Inc., the country’s largest operator of for-profit charter schools and a leader in online schools:

One big supporter of virtual education is Betsy DeVos, the Michigan billionaire tapped by President-elect Donald Trump as his nominee for education secretary. Her husband, Dick DeVos, listed on a financial disclosure form in 2006 that he and his wife owned K12 stock. The nonprofit organization she runs, the American Federation for Children, lists K12 on its website among organizations that support school choice.

K12, which pays its executives millions of dollars, gets most of its money from public funds used to operate its “virtual” schools. Strauss notes that K12 protects that income stream by shelling out millions to lobby state lawmakers and donate to their campaigns and political parties.

Last April an investigation by the Mercury News found that K12’s online charter schools in California have secured hundreds of millions in state funding in spite of “a dismal record of academic achievement.” As the Post notes, “In July, California’s attorney general announced that his office had reached a $168.5 million settlement with K12, and the 14 affiliated nonprofit schools known as the California Virtual Academies that it manages, over alleged violations of California’s false claims, false advertising and unfair competition laws….”

It’s not just California. Education Week’s November 2016 story on online charters found that political influence and cash overwhelmed any accountability for the schools’ poor performance:

Despite more than a decade of state investigations, news media reports, and research that have documented startling failures and gross mismanagement in full-time online schools, the sector—dominated by two for-profit companies—continues to expand, spreading into new states and enrolling more students. Virtual charter schools, which collectively receive more than $1 billion in taxpayer money each year, are rarely shut down…

2015 national study by economists at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes found that math scores for online charter school students were so low, it was almost as if the students didn’t attend school. While the online school providers disputed the study, the findings were damning.

As People For the American Way Senior Fellow Ari Rabin-Havt has noted, Betsy DeVos’ husband reported on disclosure forms for his 2006 gubernatorial bid that the couple owned stock in K12. “Betsy DeVos was and possibly is personally invested in this failure and was at the end of a funnel that took tax dollars dedicated to public schools and transferred them to Wall Street,”  he notes:

In her confirmation hearing, she should not only be questioned about her investment in K12 Inc. and her view on its track record, she should also be asked if she is still invested in the company. If she is, she should not be confirmed unless she divests. The conflict of interest that would exist should she continue to own shares in the K12 Inc. is made clear in the company’s annual report, which notes: “The public schools we contract with are financed with government funding from federal, state and local taxpayers. Our business is primarily dependent upon those funds.”

Privatization via Hardball Politics

As indicated above, the major expansion of school choice programs has not been due to a stellar track record of educational achievement, or to winning over the American people, but to hardball politics backed up with loads of cash from people like Betsy DeVos.

A March 2016 story in Inside Philanthropy said much of the credit for advances in “school choice” since 2000 goes to the DeVos family, “which operates three philanthropic foundations and has a remarkable talent for moving money by the truckload into socially conservative causes to shift voters’ and lawmakers’ mindsets in a rightward direction.” After she spent more than $2 million of her family’s money on a voucher referendum that was rejected by Michigan voters in 2000, DeVos doubled down on a strategy, backed by more millions, to elect compliant legislators at the state level and lobby them to enact vouchers and related tax schemes that would divert public funds to private schools.

DeVos isn’t shy about using her family’s deep pockets to buy politicians and policies more to her liking. In a 1997 interview she said, “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point…We do expect something in return.” In a 2014 interview with Campbell Brown, whose organization she has supported, DeVos said that Americans for Children’s role in the education “revolution” has been its willingness “to go hand to hand in political combat,” adding that “we can’t be stopped.”

In various speeches and interviews in recent years, DeVos demonstrates the kind of contempt for her political opponents that may have endeared her to the trash-talking Donald Trump. In a 2014 interview with Campbell Brown, DeVos spoke dismissively of “those that defend adult jobs rather than what’s in the interests of children.” Turning to the media, she said many reporters are “basically ignorant” and “don’t want to become informed.” She also said reporters are “basically lazy” and “will take whatever is fed to them.” And, like the president-elect, she spoke of using social media as a way to circumvent traditional media outlets.

DeVos has said she liked “mixing it up” in partisan politics, having served two stints as chair of the Michigan Republican Party, but now thinks education must be more “revolution” than “reform” and that requires thinking bigger than partisan politics.

 ‘School Choice’ as an ‘Ultimately Christian’ Venture

DeVos brings a Religious Right perspective to her politics and philanthropy. She once said,Democrats are in fact overtly and openly hostile to all things religious or anything pertaining to faith.” The belief that public schools are hostile to people of faith drives many Christian conservatives’ support for educational privatization.

“It’s been a long-standing goal of the Religious Right to replace public education with Christian education,” says scholar Julie Ingersoll, author of a book about Christian Reconstructionism. “The long term strategy of how to change culture is through education.” Thanks to conservative court rulings, school privatization advocates have been able to steer public education dollars to religious schools through vouchers and other tax-credit schemes promoted by politicians elected with the help of DeVos organizations’ funding.

At Vox, Libby Nelson has written that Trump’s plan, which assumes that states will divert $110 billion in education funding into vouchers, along with $20 billion from the federal government, “would be a huge windfall for private schools— the majority of which are affiliated with religious groups. According to an analysis by Mark Weber, a teacher and education researcher, churches will ‘unquestionably’ be “the biggest beneficiaries of any new national school voucher program.”

In the 1990s, DeVos described the “Education Freedom Fund” she and her husband were running “as ultimately Christian in its nature because in excess of 90% of the parents who receive these scholarships choose Christian schools to go to.”  In 2001, DeVos and her husband were interviewed at The Gathering, an annual summit for funders organized by the Christian National Foundation, which allows individuals to steer big money to potentially controversial groups while masking the source of the donations. During that conversation, Betsy DeVos said that for many years, the church thought it was important to have Christian kids making a difference in public schools, but that in recent decades the schools have had more of an impact on the children. The Center for Media and Democracy recently wrote about that interview:

In a joint interview for “The Gathering,” a group focused on advancing Christian ideology through philanthropy, she and her husband said they decided to focus on reforming public education and funding for private education because the “Lord led us there” and “God led us.”

At that meeting, they were asked if it would not have been simpler to fund Christian schools directly rather than fund political efforts like vouchers to get more tax dollars to fund Christian schools, and she replied: “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education versus what is spent every year on education in this country… So, our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s Kingdom,” adding that they want “to impact our culture [in ways] that may have great Kingdom gain in the long-run by changing the way we approach things.”

Her husband added: “We are working …. to allow for our Christian worldview, which for us comes from a Calvinist tradition, and to provide for a more expanded opportunity someday for all parents to be able to educate their children in a school that reflects their world view and not each day sending their child to a school that may be reflecting a world view that may be quite antithetical to the worldview they hold in their families.”

One of the Religious Right activists excited about DeVos is American Family Association radio host Bryan Fischer, who argues, like many privatization activists, that public education dollars should follow a child to the school of their parents’ choice, no strings attached. Fischer, like other school voucher advocates, dismisses the idea that taxpayer funding for religious schools violates the separation of church and state. He says it’s “none of the federal government’s business” whether a local school has prayer and Bible readings in the classroom.

Writing in the Forward, Jay Michaelson calls the DeVos nomination “a tragedy” for American Jews and notes:

And let’s also remember that the origins of Protestant private schools in America date to efforts to create “segregation academies” in the 1950s and 1960s, following the desegregation of American public schools following the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case. A writer on BlackCommentator.com called vouchers “the Right’s final answer to Brown.”

It’s no surprise that, then as now, it’s America’s ultra-rich, ultra-white and ultra-conservative-Christian elite—the 1% of the 1%—that is pushing to funnel your tax dollars to unregulated conservative Christian schools. They know that accountable, secular, quality public education makes the American dream possible. They know it gives immigrants and everyone else a chance to make it in this country, and inculcates pride in American values. It did for my family, and if you’re like the majority of American Jews, it did for yours, too.

That’s why they hate it, and why they’re now about to destroy it.

American Students Deserve Better

Education historian Diane Ravitch calls Betsy DeVos “the most unqualified person ever to be nominated” to head the Department of Education. “By nominating Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration has demonstrated just how out of touch it is with what works best for students, parents, educators and communities,” says the National Education Association President Lilly Eskelen Garcia.

Public education has broad support among the American people, who understand that public schools play an important role in our communities and our country. The nomination of an unqualified ideologue as the nation’s top education official is an expression of contempt for democratic governance and for the American people.

An editorial in the Madison, Wisconsin, Capital Times summarized the case against the confirmation of Betsy DeVos:

Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos has sought for years to undermine public education as an advocate for irresponsible and discredited schemes to steer money away from the programs and the public school students that need them most.

She’s a special-interest power player who has used her money to warp the politics of Wisconsin and states across the country in order to advance an education agenda that is as unworkable as it is irresponsible….

Trump could not have chosen a worse nominee than DeVos…

Ultimately, what is at stake is the future of public education as a core democratic institution that has provided generations of Americans, including immigrants, with the means to become full participants in American society. Several years ago, educator Stan Karp argued that what is ultimately at stake in school reform debates is “whether the right to a free public education for all children is going to survive as a fundamental democratic promise in our society, and whether the schools and districts needed to provide it are going to survive as public institutions, collectively owned and democratically managed — however imperfectly— by all of us as citizens. Or will they be privatized and commercialized by the corporate interests that increasingly dominate all aspects of our society?”