Skip to content Skip to footer

Billionaires Yass and DeVos Are on a Crusade to Destroy US Public Schools

The pair are spending tens of millions on state elections to pass charter and private school voucher bills.

Betsy DeVos, then U.S. secretary of education, speaks during the "Getting America's Children Safely Back to School" event in the State Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on August 12, 2020

On a hot July day in Tampa at the 2022 Moms for Liberty Summit, former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told the crowd that the US Department of Education should be abolished. This claim — that the very department she recently led should not exist — earned her a standing ovation from the Moms for Liberty members in the room.

The moment highlights how extreme the right wing in the United States has veered on education policy. Newer groups like Moms for Liberty that demonize LGBTQ+ students, critical race theory, and COVID-19 protections as “wokeness gone too far” are not only breathing new life into Betsy DeVos’s long-standing efforts to privatize public education, but are also making education a top issue for the U.S. right wing. Billionaires like DeVos and grassroots groups like Moms for Liberty have come together to form what they call the “education freedom” movement.

But while the DeVos family has been a long time funder of the cause, in recent years the legislative efforts to demonize and defund public schools have been strengthened by another billionaire: Jeff Yass, the co-founder and Managing Director of Susquehanna International Group.

Worth nearly $30 billion, Yass has exploded onto the campaign finance scene over the past few elections. Through Susquehanna International Group, a Philadelphia-based trading and investment firm, Yass was an early investor in TikTok. As TikTok grew more popular during the pandemic, Yass’s net worth more than doubled, and his political spending grew alongside his wealth. In just the past few years Yass has become one of the most influential conservative donors in Pennsylvania and the United States. On a federal level, he went from spending about $5.5 million on federal elections in 2016 to spending over $30.5 million in 2020. In Pennsylvania, Yass went from spending just over $3 million in 2018 to spending over $22 million in 2022.

Despite going to public schools himself for most of his education, Yass has spent tens of millions of dollars towards efforts to privatize the U.S. education system. Worth nearly six times more than the DeVos family, Yass has supercharged the long-standing DeVos family strategy of attacking public education on a state level where their millions of dollars can go farther to influence elections and therefore state policy.

Since 2021, Yass has spent over $23 million dollars on federal school privatization PACs like the Club for Growth’s School Freedom Fund and the DeVos-backed American Federation for Children’s Victory Fund and Action Fund. In addition to these PACs, Yass has also spent large sums of money directly in states like Pennsylvania, Texas, Kentucky, and others where he spent millions supporting pro-charter candidates and attacking anti-charter candidates, no matter the party.

The massive growth in donations from Yass to DeVos’s political groups made 2023 a banner year for the so-called “school choice movement”. A record number of 20 states passed legislation that would further the goals of Devos and the anti-public school movement. Iowa, Utah, and Florida all passed bills that would create or expand taxpayer funded Education Savings Accounts without any restrictions on what families can apply and Arkansas, Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Ohio all passed bills that would make it easier for taxpayer money to be used for charter and private schools. The CEO of the American Federation for Children took credit for the “tidal wave” of state level school choice bills getting passed with support of Jeff Yass.

To build on their momentum in 2024, Yass’s School Freedom Fund and DeVos’s American Federation for Children joined forces to launch the “Education Freedom Pledge” which asks state and federal lawmakers to support legislation that would ensure “federal funding [would] follow students – rather than government assigned schools.” So far hundreds of lawmakers around the country have signed, including 52 state lawmakers from New Hampshire, 32 from Missouri, and 31 from Arizona. Five Senators on the federal level, including Florida’s Rick Scott, Alabama’s Tommy Tuberville, and Texas’s Ted Cruz, have also signed.

Yass, DeVos Target Rural Republicans in Red States

Billionaire couple Richard and Betsy DeVos’s vehicle for their education agenda is the American Federation for Children (AFC), a large school privatization advocacy organization with nearly 50 national staff members. Its board includes notable political figures such as former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, former Missouri State House Speaker Rob Vescovo, and former Senator Joe Lieberman. Betsy DeVos was Chairman of the group from 2009 to 2016, when she joined the Trump administration, and had served on the board since at least 2004.

While the DeVos family has certainly courted sizable donations for the group in the past, Jeff Yass’s massive donations have allowed their PACs to scale up quickly. In 2022, Jeff Yass donated $2 million to the AFC Action Fund, a 527 political organization run by the Federation. The donation was the largest single donation ever given to the group and quickly made Yass the second largest donor to the group ever behind the DeVos family. In 2023, the Federation started a new PAC called AFC Victory PAC which pledged to spend $10 million on state level races in 2024. Jeff Yass is the largest donor to this PAC as well, giving $3.5 million out of the total $4.57 million raised. Betsy and Richard DeVos gave another $1 million.

The organization behind it all, the 501(c)(4) American Federation for Children, spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on federal level lobbying for school choice policies and funds about 15 state level organizations in states like Ohio, Indiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and many others. Jeff Yass’s philanthropic foundation, the Susquehanna Foundation, has also funded the AFC Growth Fund, the American Federation for Children’s registered 501(c)(3) arm.

AFC’s strategy is to push their school privatization agenda on the state level through state-based advocacy organizations, state-level PACs, and substantial political spending. While there are many states with a Republican trifecta in the state government that may provide an easy path for their efforts, the group has had to spend millions to eliminate a surprising roadblock in many red states: rural republicans.

Yass and DeVos have had to focus much of their spending in states like Texas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Idaho where rural Republicans saw voucher bills as threats to education access in rural areas. Despite being conservatives, many of these rural Republicans voted against funding private school vouchers because there were no private school options in their districts and they worried it would divert critical funding away from rural public schools. Nevertheless, billionaires Yass and DeVos forged ahead, spending millions to thwart democratic decision making in those red states and remove elected officials that dared to vote against them.

For example, the Idaho Capital Sun reported that in 2022, the AFC Action Fund spent a portion of Yass’s money to support 12 candidates in Idaho running for the state legislature and State Attorney General. All of the candidates were selected because of their pro-charter and anti-public school positions, and six candidates ended up winning their races, including the current Idaho Attorney General.

The same pattern was followed in Arizona where the AFC PAC spent about $255,000 in 2022 state races. The PAC was successful in winning ten races, and soon after Arizona passed legislation removing limits on the Education Savings Account program and expanding the program to $900 million. Most recently, the AFC Victory Fund has spent $461,000 in Texas to unseat rural Republicans that did not support school privatization legislation, according to OpenSecrets.

Not only do these school privatization efforts divert needed funding away from rural public schools, but the taxpayer funded vouchers can be spent on already wealthy private schools and their students. In some of the first states to pass universal school voucher access, like Ohio, Arizona, and Florida, research showed that most of the funds went to students already enrolled in private schools rather than students using the funds to transfer out of public schools.

School Freedom Fund Uses Critical Race Theory to Defund Public Schools

Prior to getting involved in AFC’s political activities, Yass had been a major funder of the conservative national PAC Club for Growth Action. The group has supported some of the country’s most rightwing politicians, including former President Trump, Senator Ted Cruz, Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, and Florida Governor Ron Desantis.

In 2022, the Club for Growth launched the School Freedom Fund, a branch of the conservative PAC that would work closely with DeVos’s American Federation for Children to privatize education in the U.S. The Club for Growth had earned political points with the DeVos family after running television ads to support her confirmation as Trump’s Education Secretary in 2017. Following DeVos’s lead, the School Freedom Fund proudly declares on its website that the Department of Education should be closed. Since 2021, Yass has given $18 million to the Fund, making him the largest donor.

Following the early success of Moms for Liberty, the School Freedom Fund is another example of billionaire charter school advocates channeling the conservative energy around manufactured social panics about LGBTQ+ issues, critical race theory, and COVID-19 policies to further their own school privatization agenda.

After two Yass donations totaling $15 million in the 2022 election cycle, the School Freedom Fund spent money on numerous races using fear over Critical Race Theory (CRT) in schools as a scare tactic. The PAC ran television ads against Pat McCrory in North Carolina claiming that he had “pushed critical race theory” in schools when he was Governor. It again ran ads to support anti-public school candidates in Oklahoma and Georgia using CRT as a weapon against more moderate Republicans. The Fund then teamed up with the Club for Growth to spend over $5 million on the Kentucky 2023 Gubernatorial race, running ads attacking current Democratic Governor Beshear on crime. While many of the attack ads against Beshear were not about education, the millions of dollars came into the race after the Governor vetoed a charter school funding bill.

The School Freedom Fund and AFC Victory Fund are now teaming up in Texas in 2024 primary races to unseat Republicans that voted against pro-voucher legislation – an embarrassing loss for the school privatization movement in 2023. The School Freedom Fund announced a $1.15 million television ad buy and the AFC Victory Fund is paying for mailers according to the Texas Tribune. One School Freedom Fund ad against Republican State Representative Reggie Smith claims that he had taken donations from liberal unions that were “pushing critical race theory in schools” and voted against allowing parents to decide where to send their children to school.

Yass Giving Directly to State Campaigns

Giving over $23 million to national PACs working state-by-state to defund public education was apparently not enough for Jeff Yass. At the end of 2023, Yass handed Texas Governor Greg Abbott the largest donation in Texas state history – $6 million. The donation, which came on top of a $250,000 donation a few months earlier, was widely reported to be for Abbott’s campaign to pass his school voucher program, meaning Abbott could spend it to help unseat fellow Republicans that sided with Democrats to preserve funding for public schools.

Finally, Yass has spent tens of millions on Pennsylvania elections to win funding for charter and private school vouchers in his home state. The richest man in the state, he spent over $22 million on state elections in the 2022 election cycle and spent $19 million in 2023. Earlier in 2023, Commonwealth Action, a dark money group with ties to Yass, ran ads targeting Democratic state legislators when they chose not to support school vouchers legislation. Commonwealth Action is affiliated with the conservative think tank the Commonwealth Foundation, which operates as Yass’s advocacy vehicle to push school privatization in Pennsylvania and shares an office and staff with the manager of Yass’s Pennsylvania based PACs.

With very few restrictions on campaign finances in states across the country, the future of public education in the United States may come down to one TikTok billionaire and his eagerness to fund Betsy DeVos’s school privatization machine. It then becomes critical that organizers, activists, and parents map out where this money is coming from, how it flows into hyper local elections, and how it shapes the quality of public education for low-income, rural, and black and brown students.

Further, it is critical to call out Jeff Yass for his outsized influence in democratic elections and in meddling in districts that neither him nor Betsy DeVos have likely ever stepped foot in. In Yass’s home state of Pennsylvania, grassroots groups across the state have done just that. Groups that are part of the AllEyesonYass campaign have gone to Yass’s investment firm, his house, and the offices of his front groups to resist and educate voters on his extreme rightwing agenda. These efforts have bolstered awareness of Yass in the state and even persuaded some candidates to return checks from Yass, viewing any association with him as a political liability. As Yass and DeVos ramp up their efforts to privatize education in 2024 and beyond, the same must be done to hold him accountable in all states where Yass is crushing educational opportunities for millions of students.

Join us in defending the truth before it’s too late

The future of independent journalism is uncertain, and the consequences of losing it are too grave to ignore. To ensure Truthout remains safe, strong, and free, we need to raise $48,000 in the next 8 days. Every dollar raised goes directly toward the costs of producing news you can trust.

Please give what you can — because by supporting us with a tax-deductible donation, you’re not just preserving a source of news, you’re helping to safeguard what’s left of our democracy.