Who is Betsy DeVos?

Who is Betsy DeVos?
Source: JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Betsy DeVos was not a popular choice to be named to the position of Secretary of Education after Trump named her. In fact, for her Senate confirmation, she needed Vice President Mike Pence to cast the tie breaking vote to get her over the finish line, which makes hers the closest confirmation vote of any Trump nominee. Even as she has settled into the role, DeVos has continued to be a controversial figure, especially among educators.

At the time of her confirmation, The New York Times described DeVos as “a billionaire who has devoted much of her life to promoting charter schools and vouchers.” The fact that her entire education took place in private schools made her a seemingly odd choice for a position where she would be overseeing American public schools.

Betsy DeVos’ early life

Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos (nee Prince) is the daughter of Edgar and Elsa Prince. She grew up in Holland, Michigan, the birth town of her father, who founded the automotive Prince Company there. His car parts manufacturer grew into the multibillion dollar Prince Manufacturing empire. One of the company’s biggest successes was the lighted sun visor.

Betsy is one of four siblings, including two sisters – Eileen and Emilie – and one brother, Erik, who would go on to found Blackwater, the mercenary group accused of war crimes and committing multiple murders in Iraq. (More recently, Erik, who is a prominent supporter of President Donald Trump, has been hiring spies to infiltrate liberal groups.)

Betsy graduated from the private Holland Christian High School before attending Calvin College, another private Christian school, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1979.

That same year, Betsy married Dick DeVos, whose father was the founder of Amway, the billion dollar multilevel marketing company (currently operated under Alticor). Dick and Betsy have four children together.

Betsy DeVos’ focus on education

Betsy DeVos’ political career goes back to her time in college volunteering for President Gerald Ford’s failed 1976 reelection campaign. She attended the Republican National Convention that year, setting the stage for a lifetime of support for Republican politicians and candidates, including her husband’s unsuccessful bid to be Michigan’s governor in 2006.

Her main focus, though, has long been education. According to her official United States Department of Education bio, DeVos’ passion for education is rooted in her mother’s career as a public school teacher. She became invested in school reforms after sending her own kids to school and being “confronted with the reality that not every child in America is granted an equal opportunity to receive a great education.”

In what proved to be a liability during her nomination process for education secretary, much of her reform efforts were focused on school vouchers and school choice. Vouchers are a controversial topic among educators because they allow parents whose tax money would otherwise fund public schools to be used to send their kids to private or parochial schools of their choosing.

In a September 2013 interview for the Philanthropy Roundtable, DeVos referred to this as “the educational choice movement,” which, in addition to vouchers and tax credits, includes “virtual schools, magnet schools, homeschooling, and charter schools.”

Controversy over educational choice

The Cato Institute, a conservative Libertarian think tank, praises educational choice programs, saying they “empower parents to choose the education that best meets their child’s needs.” Furthermore, they contend, “Parental choice drives schools to be more responsive to parents.” In this way, parents are said to have greater input in their children’s education.

Alternatively, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), located at the University of Colorado in Boulder, has found sending children to alternative schools, such as charters, negatively affects other children overall. The NEPC acknowledges that education is a complex, personal issue for parents, but the existence of charter schools in particular “erode … overall public school quality through competition.”

These types of educational alternatives have been shown to lead to greater racial segregation and undermine educational opportunities for impoverished children.

Additionally, the progressive Center for American Progress published research that showed students who participated in various local voucher programs did substantially worse than their same-age counterparts who attended public schools.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos

After nearly 30 years of educational choice advocacy, Trump tapped DeVos to be his Education Secretary, despite, as The New Yorker stated, having “never taught in a public school, nor administered one, nor sent her children to one.” Her contentious nomination process was just the beginning of her rocky time in the position.

Weeks after DeVos joined the Trump administration, a planned visit to a Washington, DC public school was derailed when protesters blocked her way. Some reports suggested that a protester knocked her down. The action was criticized by both Republicans and Democrats, with DC Mayor Muriel Bowser tweeting, “We welcome @BetsyDeVos & anyone who wants to learn more about our schools.”

In May 2017, DeVos gave the commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida. Before her speech, the students at the historically Black college booed DeVos when the university’s president awarded her an honorary degree. At times, her speech was almost entirely drowned out by angry shouting, with some students turning their backs on her.

The National Education Association (NEA), which represents public school teachers and is the nation’s largest union, has called DeVos “a disaster for public education.” In documenting her time as education secretary, the NEA has frequently criticized her actions, such as her reversal of an Obama-era regulation designed to give sexual assault victims on college campuses greater recourse for justice.

Advocating the reopening of schools

DeVos’ most recent controversy has come from her siding with President Donald Trump in attempting to force schools to reopen in the fall. The Trump administration has threatened to withhold federal payments if schools do not open, essentially blackmailing schools into opening, even if teachers and parents do not want them to.

DeVos recently said in an interview on Fox News, “There’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous.” In fact, many health officials have urged schools to remain closed as the full risks to children are still not known.

Ironically, after a career of advocating for parental choice in education, The New York Times reports this latest stance has earned DeVos the ire of some of her previous allies.

Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative organization that advocates for vouchers and charter schools, says he doesn’t understand why DeVos is now supporting the federal government strong-arming schools.

“Betsy DeVos six months ago would have thought this was ludicrous,” Petrilli said.

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