Betsy DeVos was the most (empirically) controversial nomination of president Trump’s cabinet and the most controversial education nomination in history. After exhausting democratic filibusters and rounds of hearings, DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education on February 7, 2017, with a split vote 50-50, requiring vice president Mike Pence to step in and tip the scale in her favor. She is the only nomination to have required the assistance of the VP’s vote. But why?
Well, there are many reasons. But they can be most effectively reduced to questions concerning experience, ideology, and money. Before I delve into the controversies surrounding DeVos’s nomination, however, let’s discuss one policy area she seems to gain approval on: transgender bathroom rights. The Transgender Bathroom Order, like all executive orders signed by the president, required the backing of his cabinet. Yet, before the order was initially executed, DeVos went on record stating she was “uncomfortable because of the potential harm that rescinding the protections could cause transgender students.” She is referring to the order’s mandate that transgender students must use the bathroom appropriate to their assigned gender as stated on their birth certificate. This pitted her against US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has long opposed the expansion of LGBTQ recognition under law. (A full bio of him can be found here.)
The order concerns DeVos because of what Trump’s order was rescinding, namely, the previous administration's edict that transgender students are allowed to use the “restrooms, locker rooms and facilities of their choice.” Noncompliance with this mandate means losing federal funding, which falls under one of four “major activities” overseen by the Department of Education (ED), according to their website. Despite her objections, however, Trump reportedly told DeVos it was her job or it was the order. She chose the latter.
But this seems, at the least, like a reasonable compromise on DeVos’s part. So what makes her so controversial? For starters, her lack of experience. Unlike her predecessor, Harvard educated John King Jr., she has none. King, before serving as New York Commissioner of Education for five years and later Deputy Secretary of Education, developed many successful programs in urban charter schools. For example, he founded Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Massachusetts where, under his leadership, it closed the racial achievement gap, attained the highest state exam scores, and outperformed every school in any district across all socio-economic backgrounds. Before her nomination as Secretary of Education, DeVos spent time producing a Broadway play called Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, a famous evangelist, and was a board member with her husband for the company Neurocore: a collection of brain performance centers researching biofeedback therapy for children with depression, anxiety, autism, and attention deficit disorder, before stepping down due to allegations regarding conflicts of interest. These allegations lead me to my next controversy: money.
Betsy DeVos, before marrying, was Betsy Prince. Her father, Edgar Prince, made it big ($1 billion big) by restoring an automative manufacturing business to its innovative heights with inventions like the manual sunroof. Her brother, Erik Prince, founded Blackwater which, according to Mr. Prince, wants “to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did to the Postal Service,” and has since become the world’s most powerful private army. In 1979, Ms. Prince was entrusted with the DeVos family name by taking millionaire Dick DeVos’s hand in marriage. Dick DeVos is the president of Amway, a multi level marketing company his father started that now produces roughly $8.8 billion in sales, annually. Together, their community contributions stretch anywhere from children’s hospitals, convention centers, town halls, the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in their hometown of Grand Rapids, and their prized Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, for whom Betsy herself campaigned. In fact, it’s not just the immediate Betsy-Dick DeVos coupling that shares in this wealth. Dick’s brother Doug owns the Orlando Magics (an NBA team), and their mother Helen currently operates Alticor, Amway’s mother company. In fact, the DeVos family and family fortune is so large it requires its own governing structure. Richard DeVos, Dick’s father, outlined the structure in his 2014 book entitled Simply Rich, where he states the following:
“We formed the DeVos Family Council, which is made up of our children and their spouses and meets four times a year. The Family Council just approved a family constitution that essentially captures our family mission and values. … The Family Council also articulates how the family will work together in managing our shared financial interests and our philanthropy.
“We also have the Family Assembly ….When grandchildren turn 16, they are inducted … in a formal ceremony that everyone attends...They are able to vote in the meetings at age 25, after they have met additional qualifications for taking on this added responsibility.”
Having this level of funds is one thing, but it’s how they spend it—aside from Western Michigan philanthropy—which gets really interesting. The method or commitment one abides by when choosing where and how to allocate money, for the purposes of this article, will comprise the third critique: political ideology. For the DeVos family, you can’t have politics without religion. POLITICO reports that in 2001, during an annual conference of the country’s wealthiest christians called “The Gathering,” Betsy DeVos claimed, “Our desire is to be in that Shephelah [an era of battles within the Old Testament], and to confront the culture in which we all live today in ways that will continue to help advance God’s Kingdom, but not to stay in our own faith territory.” The sentiment of “confronting culture” with faith in order to “advance God’s Kingdom” echoes the tenent of Mrs. DeVos’s alma mater, Calvin College. “Our faith commits us to engaging the world all around us,” reports Kevin Den Dulk, a Calvin College alumn.
This engagement with the world through the prism of faith is what Betsy DeVos brought to the political arena of Western Michigan, where she spent 16 consecutive two-year terms as the Michigan Republican Party’s (MRP) precint delegate. Aside from donating over $160,000 dollars to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), or $50,000, collectively, to republicans like Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.), all of whom sit on the education committee (which oversaw her nomination), DeVos executes agendas of her own. In 2000, she drafted Propsal 1: a consitutional amendment to the State of Michigan allowing public funds to be used to pay for private, religous schools. At the time, a man named John Engler (R) was governor. DeVos had previously, and generously, donated to Engler’s campaign, which is why it came as a suprise when he openly opposed her idea. She retorted by quitting her position as State GOP chair at 9:00 AM one morning, without notice, while Engler was visiting Washington D.C..
It does not stop there. Mother Jones reports the following: “From 1999 to 2014, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation gave out $2.39 million to the Grand Rapids Christian High School Association, $652,000 to the Ada Christian School, and $458,000 to Holland Christian Schools. All told, their foundation contributed $8.6 million to private religious schools.” Donations such as these spillover into a strong DeVosian preference for schools that are private, charter, and, especially, religous.
In his first 100 days, Trump outlined a federal budget that oultined a $20 billion block grant allocated at the state level to help jumpstart a nationwide school voucher program. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) recently published an analysis of even large-scale voucher programs, writing that, from a pool of several US cities, states like Florida, Louisiana, Indiana, and even in Chile and India, they found “limited improvements at best in student achievement and school district performance” (emphasis added). DeVos trumpets the voucher system herself, calling the “closed system” of governemnt funded public schooling “a monopoly, a dead end.” Indeed, the notion that the government “monopolizes” the education system is precisely why Milton Friedman devised the voucher system in 1955. The argument, according to propents, goes like this: Allowing private schools to compete on an eqaul playing field with public schools, in terms of funding, in an open market, would provide the best education for the most amount of people. But as the EPI reports, even in Milwauke, which implements the country’s second largest school voucher program, there exists “no solid evidence of student gains in either private or public schools.”
This leads me into my final critique, DeVos’s ideology, which has a high dosage of free market racketeering dashed with Calvinist preferability. The United States Department of Education (ED), began in 1979 as a product of president Jimmy Carter’s Department of Education Organization Act. According to ED’s website, the Department is tasked with overseeing the administration of a $68 billion budget, identifying “major issues” in education of national concern, and establishing policies “related to federal education funding.” If this profiling of her charactersitics is correct, then DeVos’s “national concerns” could turn into a platform advocating for school vouchers, deregulation of for-profit colleges, easing of accomadations for students with different abilities, and probably most importantly, DeVos will use this spotlight to turn away from racial disparities in access to education, and toward the issues aforementioned. In fact, some of these have already been taken care of.
New York Times: Dismal Voucher Results Surprise Researchers as DeVos Era Begins