President-elect Donald Trump intends to nominate an unconventional choice for Secretary of Education – Betsy DeVos. A billionaire philanthropist from Michigan, DeVos has been a long-time activist for school choice, believing such systems improve the education system. This advocacy work for school choice aligns with Trump’s education agenda, which includes a $20 billion plan to fund states’ school choice programs. Trump’s nomination of DeVos has met criticism from sources (see here and here) that argue her policy preferences are not beneficial to traditional public schools.
What are her qualifications?
DeVos does not have work experience in a school environment, nor does she have an education degree. Instead, she holds a bachelor’s degrees in business administration and political science from Calvin College. However, DeVos would not be the first Secretary of Education to take office without having worked in schools. For example, neither Margaret Spellings (Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, 2005-2008) nor Richard Riley (Secretary of Education under Bill Clinton, 1993-2000) worked in schools. DeVos is unique, however, in that she does not hold outstanding post-graduate credentials (as most secretaries of education have had) and she would be the first philanthropist to hold the position.
To date, DeVos has served in leadership positions for a number of organizations devoted to education reform, including stints on the board of directors at Advocates for School Choice, the American Education Reform Council, the Education Freedom Fund, the Acton Institute, Children First America, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She has also served as chairwoman of the American Federation for Children and of the Alliance for School Choice. DeVos also served as Michigan’s Republican National Committeewoman between 1992-1997 and chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party from 1996-2000. From these qualifications, it seems clear that Trump did not pick DeVos for her expertise in education policy, but for her school choice advocacy work and experience in politics.
What are her policy preferences?
Perhaps the most obvious and commonly cited preference DeVos has is for school choice. But more specifically, what types of choice does DeVos advocate for?
DeVos supports voucher systems in which public education funding is used for private education. In 2000, DeVos supported efforts to pass a state constitutional amendment in Michigan that would have allowed taxpayer money to follow students to private schools in a voucher system. The ballot initiative failed, but DeVos has continued to support private school vouchers through the American Federation for Children and the Great Lakes Education Project. These groups also advocate for the expansion of charter schools.
Taking her support for school choice one step further, DeVos is a proponent of for-profit charter schools and minimal oversight. An example of the system DeVos advocates for can be seen in Detroit, which she helped design – a system that allows for-profit charter schools and almost no oversight. As Douglas Harris aptly described, “[DeVos] devised Detroit’s system to run like the Wild West.” As a result, Detroit is struggling as the lowest-performing district in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Detroit Federation of Teachers protest the conditions in the school district. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.
Aside from school choice, DeVos has a history of financially backing opponents of affirmative action in higher education. In 2001, the DeVos family provided funding to The Center for Individual Rights when it challenged the University of Michigan’s race-based admissions process in court. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold the university’s affirmative action policy.
DeVos and Trump hold similar policy preferences
DeVos and Trump both favor school choice for ostensibly altruistic motives. Claims that parents should have a choice, particularly when the neighborhood school is not performing well, come from the desire to give students from marginalized communities better opportunities. However, there is significant concern as to whether choice policies would gut funding for traditional public schools and further disenfranchise the same students DeVos and Trump claim to help. Both proponents and opponents of school choice can cite examples to support their preferences due to the mixed evidence in the literature.
However, the evidence from Detroit is clear – DeVos’s system of school choice does not work. This raises significant concerns about Trump’s plans to redirect large sums of federal education funding toward school choice policies with DeVos at the helm of the Federal Department of Education. In particular, what policies will Trump and DeVos incentivize states to adopt and will they be based on clear evidence that they benefit students? Although I hope the forthcoming education policies will have solid backing in the literature, I for one am concerned given DeVos’s history of damaging Detroit’s public education system and lack of expertise in education policy.
Contact Nancy: Duchesn4@msu.edu