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Betsy DeVos: The Anti-Public School Secretary of Education

Betsy DeVos is, without a doubt, the least qualified, most anti-public school person to ever be nominated as Secretary of Education. Never having worked in, attended or studied public schools, her education experience is in lobbying to dismantle public education.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

December 16, 2016
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Betsy DeVos is, without a doubt, the least qualified, most anti-public school person to ever nominated as Secretary of Education. First of all, DeVos, with no experience as an educator will head of the nation’s 99,000 public schools. As a chairwoman for organizations that push a pro-charter, pro-voucher agenda, DeVos is hardly a friend of public schools. She has used her money to buy political influence in Detroit to expand its charter schools despite the fact that those charter schools had been failing. This is just one way that Trump’s design for schools will divert public dollars toward private interests. With the belief that church should play a central role in education and in American life, parochial schools and for-profit education management companies will benefit. She will do nothing to combat homo and transphobia in schools, being homophobic herself. Proponents of public education, along with teachers, students and families must unite to contest DeVos’ nomination, one of the many battles we will have to fight during the Trump years.

Trump’s Common Ground with the Democrats

This year’s campaign hostilities and seemingly philosophical polarization between the Republicans and the Democrats belie their considerable degree of common ground on the subject of education, particularly around charter school expansion. Despite the “progressive” rhetoric of civil rights for choice with regard to schooling, the data shows that charters are no better than traditional public schools; in fact, they take money away from traditional schools while rejecting the most “difficult” students who have behavior, language or learning differences. The expansion of charters is also an attack on teachers’ unions, as many do not allow teachers to unionize. Yet, despite overwhelming evidence against charters, both Democrats and Republicans continue to support their proliferation, pushed by intense lobbying by hedge fund billionaires and their organizations. Clearly, the consistent failure to show that charters are better than public schools did not stop Donald Trump’s nor Barack Obama’s pro-charter agenda Race to the Top.

Trump’s privatization model goes beyond funding charter schools. Trump’s school choice system would allow public money to go towards private schools, as well as to public and charter schools. In the proposed voucher program, money would follow individual students to the school of their family’s choice- whether it be private, parochial, charter or public. Trump promises $20 billion toward this endeavor, possibly invoking “Title I portability”, tapping into longtime appropriated dollars for Title I for transfer into individual hands. Trump artfully uses the language of racial justice in his call for school choice, identifying it as “the civil rights issues of our time.” Huge non-profits such as Families for Excellent Schools, which lobbies both Republicans and Democrats for expansion of charter schools, couch their aims in such racial justice rhetoric. Certainly, this is ironic as racial justice organizations from the NAACP to Black Lives Matter disagree with school choice legislation; and both call for a moratorium on the spread of charter schools.

Both the Democrat and Republican leadership have embraced the charter movement. In fact, two Democrats, Michelle Rhee and Eva Moscowitz, had been on Trump’s short list as possible nominees for Secretary of Education. What these Democrats have in common is their pro-charter, anti-teacher’s union stances. Yet, his final choice is DeVos, an inexperienced, relatively unknown defacto lobbyist who is set on privatizing public education.

Betsy DeVos: The Lobbyist Who Became Secretary of Education

Trump selected Betsy DeVos, former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican party, as his Secretary of Education, despite the fact that DeVos never attended, taught, or placed her children in a public school. The New York Times reported that DeVos is a lobbyist who used her money to buy influence in education- an education system that she has in no way engaged with at any moment of her life as a student, an academic, a teacher or a parent. DeVos heads the pro-charter and pro-school-voucher “nonprofit”, the American Federation for Children, that espouses choice as the solution to education: all parents can choose; all parents know what they want in education.

Appointing DeVos is an insult to those who still advocate for democratic public education, that the future Secretary of Education of the most powerful nation in the world has only engaged with public education in a lobbyist role, and one that relentlessly attacked traditional public schools. How could someone who knows nothing about public education from academic study to first hand experience, with less knowledge of public education than the 3.1 million public school teachers and families, be entitled to such a position of power? The answer: She bought herself a place.

DeVos’ Wealth Translated to Entitlement

Born into a wealthy family and marrying into another wealthy one, DeVos has always lived a life of extreme privilege. Her father in law, Richard DeVos, is 88th among the world’s richest persons according to Forbes. Betsy DeVos is an avid donor to the Republican Party and other conservative causes, both in Michigan and outside of it. DuVos has made clear that these donations come with strings attached. She expected her money to buy her policies. As DeVos wrote in Roll Call, “My family is the biggest contributor of soft money to the Republican National Committee…I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment.”

DeVos unabashedly argues that her money will buy her influence in the Republican party to push her anti-public school agenda. Under the Trump administration, she will not only have influence, she will hold the highest post in the nation in order to accomplish her goal of dismantling public education as we know it.

Public Dollars to Private Schools

DeVos’ model expands charters and siphons public dollars to private schools, and the position as Secretary of Education will allow her pro-voucher policies to expand to the federal level. Her non-profit clearly states that they want to redefine public education as public dollars going into private hands. The mission of the AFC reads “The American Federation for Children (AFC) seeks the fundamental transformation of public education by breaking down barriers to educational choice. We believe public education must be defined as providing families with the public funding they need to choose the education they determine is best for their children.” This amounts to essentially dismantling public education.

As the New York Times states, “It is hard to find anyone more passionate about the idea of steering public dollars away from traditional public schools than Betsy DeVos, Donald J. Trump’s pick as the cabinet secretary overseeing the nation’s education system.” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, called Ms. DeVos “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee” in the history of the United States.

A voucher policy also strengthens parochial schools. In a joint interview, the DuVoses argued that churches must be more involved in education. “The church — which ought to be in our view far more central to the life of the community — has been displaced by the public school as the center for activity, the center for what goes on in the community…It is certainly our hope that churches would continue, no matter what the environment — whether there’s government funding some day through tax credits, or vouchers, or some other mechanism or whatever it may be — that more and more churches will get more and more active and engaged in education…We just can think of no better way to rebuild our families and our communities.” Instead of spending their money on funding Christian schools, Betsy DeVos said they want to change the entire system in order to bring about “greater Kingdom gain.”

DeVos’ religious beliefs must be seen as central to how she will carry out her job as Secretary of Education, in the interests of expanding the role of religion in education, as well as strengthening parochial schools.

Betsy DeVos and Public Schools: A Balance Sheet

The charter schools in Michigan that DeVos supports have recorded student test scores in reading and math below the state average. The Washington Post reports, “On the west side, another charter school, Hope Academy, has been serving the community around Grand River and Livernois for 20 years. Its test scores have been among the lowest in the state throughout those two decades; in 2013 the school ranked in the first percentile, the absolute bottom for academic performance. Two years later, its charter was renewed.” This is one among a long list of charter schools that are failing Detroit students. To a certain extent, the DeVos family can be directly blamed for this failure.

The DeVos’s family poured $1.45 million into an effort to prevent Michigan from adding supervision for [charter schools DeVos sought charter schools to not have federal oversight– meaning that these charters should not have any “quality control.” This helped create a charter system of failing schools next to a system of failing Detroit Public Schools. This however, does not seem to be a concern for DeVos, who when asked by right wing web site Philanthropy about what has been her “biggest successes”, DeVos cites the expansion of school choice in Florida without a single mention of how this improved schools or student achievement. To DeVos, it doesn’t matter if charters fail kids, as long as they stay open and proliferate.

Furthermore, according to the New York Times, DeVos essentially used her money to buy Republican opposition to charter school oversight. The Times reports that the DeVos family withheld money from the Republican party until they agreed to oppose oversight of charters. Once they agreed, DeVos flooded their coffers with 1.45 million over 7 weeks– a clear example of purchasing policies from politicians.

This occurred in the state of Michigan, where Detroit public schools are 1.7 billion dollars in debt. Certainly, that money could be better used to fix the deteriorating infrastructure than to manipulate votes. In fact, teachers from Detroit public schools went on a sick out last year to protest the poor conditions of their schools. Yet, De Vos seeks privatization of education without addressing public education’s under-funding, crumbling infrastructure and overcrowded classrooms.


As the Secretary of Education, DeVos’ homo and transphobic beliefs may have an impact on public education. Certainly, many LGBT people felt threatened by Trump. Upon the announcement of Trump’s electoral victory, there was a spike in calls to suicide hotlines. The Washington Post reports that people called suicide hotlines two and a half more times than usual, reporting fear of a Trump presidency. A majority of those callers were LGBTQ people who feared that the tiny steps towards equality forged under the Obama administration would be lost and afraid of the open hatred of Trump supporters. Although Trump has not made blatantly homophobic statements, LGBT people knew that this right-wing President would bring terrible consequences for the queer community. Betsy DeVos proves that this concern is valid.

The DeVos family has demonstrated itself to be firmly anti-LGBT. The Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation donated money for the National Organization for Marriage, an organization devoted to restricting marriage access for gay and lesbian couples. They also donated to Focus on the Family, a right wing Christian group whose founder argued that the fight against LGBT rights was a “second civil war,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group has also pushed so-called “conversion therapy”, an attempt to make a gay people heterosexual via therapy that is based on the assumption that it is wrong to be gay.

There is no dearth of demonstrations of DeVos and the DeVos family’s homophobia. As Secretary of Education, her position on this issue is important, given the amount of bullying that LGBT kids face in schools. The Obama Department of Education gave lip-service to supporting initiatives for LGBT students, but did not actually demand that schools extend anti-bullying policies to LGBT students or allow LGBT groups in schools. The Obama administration did support the rights of trans students to use the bathroom of their choice. The lawsuit that ensued is currently awaiting trial in the Supreme Court. However, DuVos could rescind the Obama administration’s guidelines, leaving the issue of bathrooms up to each individual school. She could also use her position to stop anti LGBT bullying initiatives.

What Now?

All of the teachers unions have issued statements expressing a complete rejection of DuVos. These are empty words if they are not accompanied by clear actions. Betsy DeVos still needs to be confirmed by the Republican controlled Senate, which means there is still time to oppose her. For this reason, AFT and the NEA, the largest US teachers unions should begin to mobilize teachers, students, parents and the community against her confirmation.

We cannot trust the Democrats with opposing DeVos and to her pro-charter voucher initiatives- the Democrats expanded charters themselves! We must trust our own strength- the strength of teachers as part of the working class, allied with students, families and their communities. We must organize teach-ins to educate people about what she will do to public schools. We must organize mass protests to bring attention to the issue. And finally, we must urge the unions to call work stoppages to clearly state: we reject Betsy DeVos, we reject privatization, and we will organize to stop it! This will send a strong message to Donald Trump that says “You may have won the elections, but the real power in schools is among teachers, students and families.” Is this all very radical? Yes. But so are Trump’s cabinet picks. We have no choice but to fight.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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