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Meet the New U.S. Secretary of Education

Jordan Catapano

Today, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the U.S. Secretary of Education in Donald Trump’s presidential administration. While this move shows he won’t be shutting down the DoE any time soon, it does display that the trajectory of education is likely to shift.

Who is Betsy DeVos?

Betsy DeVos married Dick DeVos, the billionaire businessman from Michigan, in 1980 and has enjoyed life with her husband and their four children. She has largely spent her time working on philanthropic and political causes, and is most known for advocating for school choice in Michigan and across the nation.

DeVos currently chairs the American Federation for Children organization, a pro-school-choice non-profit dedicated to “Breaking down barriers for educational choice.” Her work with AFC helps to advance public policy that increases school choice for children, “Particularly those in low-income families” AFC’s website repeats.

Professionally, DeVos is Chairman of The Windquest Group, an investment and management firm based in Michigan. More notably, DeVos has been involved in Republican politics for over 35 years, most notably having been elected chairman of the Michigan Republican Party four different times beginning in 1996.

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Her family has backed Republican politics heavily with its time and money, having donated $2.7 million to Republican candidates and PACs in 2016 alone, according to the Washington Post. Her support for school choice and for the Republican Party in general has been no secret, as this has been the hallmark of her and her family’s political activities for decades.

Despite her work on behalf of these things, she has come under scrutiny in recent years for her involvement with the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which advocated for Common Core implementation. DeVos has since denied that she personally supported Common Core standards, even though the organization she was a part of did, and she has come under fire from conservative critics of the standards. The standards, she said, were turned into a “Federalized boondoggle” that she couldn’t stand by.

Where Education Policy is Likely to Go

On Friday, December 9, DeVos addressed a Michigan crowd at one of Trump’s “Thank you tour” rallies, declaring “It’s time to make education great again!”

By “Great again,” DeVos largely means that public education as a system is broken, and that school choice elements like vouchers and charters will pave the way for solutions. She further adds that a less-centralized education system will grant states and communities the autonomy necessary to drive appropriate education decisions. In her words, “I trust parents and I believe in our children,” and she wants to empower families with more choice regarding their children’s education.

When Trump announced DeVos as his Secretary of Education nominee, he did so specifically referring to these school choice elements: “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.”

DeVos, like Trump, sees public education as something of a monopoly that allows poor-quality schools to persist. This is one of the reasons she advocates for school choice, so that parents have the opportunity to send their children to a higher quality school or a school more aligned with their personal or religious values. DeVos has historically worked in Michigan to promote school vouchers, which is partial government funding towards a student’s tuition at a private school. 

Over the next four years, we might anticipate Trump and DeVos pushing for an expansion of private schools, charter schools, voucher programs, and virtually schooling. At the same time, both have advocated for decreased federal government involvement in what should be state-level decisions about education. This may lead to some contradictions in terms, as states like California have twice voted down private school voucher initiatives (in 1993 and 2000) and may not be receptive to a federal agenda.

Other critics of DeVos have begun pointing out how her Michigan charter schools are fairing rather poorly, while unions decry that “DeVos has spent millions of her family fortune on a destructive mission to destroy public education and lobby for using taxpayer dollars for unregulated vouchers and for-profit charters without regard to quality.” Many are quick to point out that neither Trump nor DeVos attended public school or sent their children there, so they have no personal context with which to judge “The importance public education plays in fostering pluralism and opportunity.”

While at the time of writing this there is no detailed agenda published by Trump or DeVos regarding their action steps for the coming years, what it seems like it comes down to is a fundamental perception of the role of education, choice, and tax dollars play in American society. There are many who see public schools as the cornerstone of American education, and school choice threatens to steal essential dollars from already stretched budgets. Vouchers are already deeply divisive, as some see this as a “Raid on the public treasury” to fund private and religious school, while others see forced property taxes as an attack on parents’ rights to send children to the educational institution of their choosing. Private and charter schools, critics point out, often have questionable accountability, which some say leads to dubious outcomes for students who attend them.

But then there are those like Trump and DeVos who wholeheartedly believe in families’ rights to choose, rather than feel “Trapped in a failing school.” Trump’s website openly declares school choice as the “Civil rights issue of our time” and wants targeted school vouchers for inner-city and low-income children. They don’t want to merely adjust a system they see as broken, but rather want to revolutionize the way American education works in terms of choice, funding, taxation, and oversight.

Because her tenure just began, we don’t have concrete ideas about what DeVos plans in her role as secretary. But for now, she asks us all to have “An open mind and an opportunity to share my heart.”