Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her family have donated more than $280,000 to back Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ re-election effort amid his crackdown on discussions of race and sexual orientation in schools.
DeVos, who served four years as former President Donald Trump’s education chief, personally contributed $5,500 to a super PAC backing DeSantis’ re-election bid last month, according to state campaign finance records. Her husband, Dick DeVos, the former chief executive of Amway, contributed more than $80,000 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis super PAC last year. Their son, Rick DeVos, contributed $2,500 directly to DeSantis’ campaign, as did their grandson Dalton DeVos and niece Olivia DeVos. Dick DeVos’ brother Daniel and his wife Pamela also kicked in more than $70,000 to the Friends of DeSantis super PAC and his other brother Douglas also contributed more than $60,000. Dick DeVos’ sister Suzanne Cheryl DeVos added another $50,000.
The DeVos family, which also owns the NBA’s Orlando Magic, donated more than $200,000 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC during the Florida governor’s 2018 campaign. The Michigan-based DeVos clan, with their extensive conservative connections, have showered far-right Republicans with campaign cash for years, contributing more than $82 million to political causes since 1999, according to an analysis by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, though some estimates put that number at closer to $200 million.
The former secretary and other members of her family have been deeply involved in the “school choice” movement, pushing to shift public education funds to private and charter schools, and have promoted efforts to use the country’s schools to “advance God’s kingdom.” DeSantis, meanwhile, quickly pushed for a plan to use taxpayer money to fund private and religious school tuition to expand “school choice” options shortly after taking office in 2019. DeVos touted the plan while part of the Trump administration, tweeting that she “completely” agrees.
DeSantis also appointed former state House Speaker Richard Corcoran, an ally of far-right Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who had no background in education, as the state’s education commissioner. Fedrick Ingram, the president of the Florida Education Association, a statewide teachers union, decried Corcoran as a “Betsy DeVos clone” after he spent his time in the legislature pushing school choice and charter school funding and decried teachers’ unions as “repugnant” and “evil” for objections to shifting taxpayer funds from private schools to charter schools. Critics also accused Corcoran of a conflict of interest because his wife Anne is the chief executive of a charter school who has worked with conservative groups like Hillsdale College to influence the state’s education curriculum.
After the pandemic hit, DeVos and Trump pushed for a rapid reopening of schools in the summer of 2020. DeSantis and Corcoran jumped at Trump’s demand, issuing an order to keep all schools open five days a week. The state last year sought to punish school districts that required students to wear masks in the classroom.
Critics say DeVos is seeking to expand her successful effort to shift money away from public schools to for-profit and private schools in Michigan, where her family has donated more than $58 million at the state level as the state’s education rankings have plummeted. John Austin, the former president of the Michigan State Board of Education, previously told Rolling Stone that the family’s efforts have done “tremendous damage to learning outcomes, particularly for poor and minority kids in Michigan.”
Since then, DeVos has turned her focus to “parental rights” — a catchall that covers conservatives’ fight against “wokeness,” “critical race theory,” and the “1619 Project.” The effort has led to bans on books on race by authors of color and discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity in classrooms, as well as the firing of school administrators and librarians.
DeSantis has been among the Republican Party’s leaders in pushing so-called “academic transparency” legislation touted by DeVos. The governor just signed into law legislation critics decried as a “Don’t say gay” bill, which bans schools from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in some classrooms and allows parents to sue school districts over potential violations.
Two LGBTQ advocacy groups, as well as students and parents, on Thursday filed a federal lawsuit arguing the Florida law is an “unlawful attempt to stigmatize, silence and erase LGBTQ people in Florida’s public schools.” The lawsuit alleges that the law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments and Title IX protections.
“It seeks to do so by imposing a sweeping, vague ban covering any instruction on ‘sexual orientation and gender identity,’ and by constructing a diffuse enforcement scheme designed to maximize the chilling effect of this prohibition,” the lawsuit says.
This effort to control young minds through state censorship — and to demean LGBTQ lives by denying their reality — is a grave abuse of power,” the complaint said. “The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that LGBTQ people and families are at home in our constitutional order. The State of Florida has no right to declare them outcasts, or to treat their allies as outlaws, by punishing schools where someone dares to affirm their identity and dignity.”
DeSantis’ office pushed back on the lawsuit, arguing that the complaint erroneously claims that a person has a right to instruct another person’s child about sexuality or gender and that state employees can craft their own unique curriculum for elementary school classrooms. DeSantis’ communications director Taryn Fenske said the law “does not chill speech — instead it returns speech on these topics to parents.”
“This lawsuit is a political Hail-Mary to undermine parental rights in Florida. Unsurprisingly, many of the parties to this suit are advocacy groups with publicly stated political agendas,” Fenske said in an email to Salon. “This calculated, politically motivated, virtue-signaling lawsuit is meritless, and we will defend the legality of parents to protect their young children from sexual content in Florida public schools,” she added.
DeSantis last year also signed a law further expanding the state’s school vouchers program, directing $200 million to allow tens of thousands of families with incomes upwards of $100,000 to qualify for income-based scholarships intended to help children living in poverty. The law also weakened oversight for the program. The Florida Education Association said after the signing that “draining money from public education to fund unaccountable private institutions is a betrayal of the 90 percent of students who are in public schools.” DeSantis defended the bill as a way for “working families” to “have the ability to get their kids into the school of their choices.”
DeSantis is also pushing a bill titled the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” which aims to ban the teaching of so-called “critical race theory,” which DeSantis described as teaching “our kids to hate our country or hate each other.” Though there is little evidence that critical race theory, which examines systemic racism in law and society, is actually being taught in public schools in Florida or elsewhere, conservatives like Devos and others have sought to crack down on certain race-related education. DeVos last year decried critical race theory as “indoctrination.”
Critics linked DeSantis’ education crackdown to donations from the DeVos clan and other deep-pocketed conservatives ahead of his re-election battle.
“While millions of Floridians are struggling to make ends meet from rising costs and a pandemic that Ron DeSantis has ignored, he is focused on his quixotic presidential bid and pleasing his billionaire backers,” Aidan Johnson, a spokesperson for the Democratic PAC American Bridge, said in a statement to Salon. “He cares more about catering to extremists within the Republican Party than keeping Floridians safe.”