Donald Trump announced Wednesday that he is appointing as education secretary Betsy DeVos, the billionaire Republican who is a major champion and founding funder of the modern education privatization movement. Bringing no significant experience in public education, DeVos is a billionaire member of a family that has cultivated extensive power and influence in conservative circles thanks to its fortune from the Amway Corporation.
Trump’s appointment immediately provoked objection, with writer and historican Diane Ravitch slamming DeVos as someone who “does not hide her contempt for the public schools.”
Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, declared Wednesday that DeVos has “done more to undermine public education than support students. She has lobbied for failed schemes, like vouchers — which take away funding and local control from our public schools — to fund private schools at taxpayers’ expense. These schemes do nothing to help our most-vulnerable students while they ignore or exacerbate glaring opportunity gaps. She has consistently pushed a corporate agenda to privatize, de-professionalize and impose cookie-cutter solutions to public education.”
“By nominating Betsy DeVos,” said García, “the Trump administration has demonstrated just how out of touch it is with what works best for students, parents, educators and communities.”
Trump has also appointed white nationalist Steve Bannon as chief White House strategist, overt racist Jeff Sessions as attorney general and hawkish anti-Muslim crusader Michael Flynn as national security adviser.
DeVos is among a handful of billionaires who have created and underwritten the rapid expansion of charter schools since 2000. As detailed in an e-book published this fall by AlterNet’s parent organization, Who Controls Our Schools? The Privatization of American Public Education, DeVos has long supported using taxpayer funds for voucher programs, parochial schools and charters, all of which undermine and replace public schools and locally-elected school boards. She neither attended public schools nor sent her children to them. (Click here to read the ebook for free.)
The former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, DeVos backed a failed ballot initiative in 2000 to amend the state constitution to allow students to use taxpayer dollars to attend nonpublic schools. She heads the American Federation for Children, which was described in Political Research Associates by Rachel Tabachnick:
The American Federation for Children is now the umbrella organization for two nonprofits that have been at the center of the pro-privatization movement for over a decade. In addition to the renamed Advocates for School Choice, it includes the Alliance for School Choice, formerly known as the Education Reform Council. Both entities received extensive funding from the late John Walton, one of the Wal-Mart heirs. The boards of the two related entities included movement leaders Betsy DeVos–scion of a Christian Right family who married into the Amway home goods fortune–William Oberndorf, Clint Bolick, John Kirtley, Steve Friess (son of Foster Friess), James Leininger, John Walton, and Cory Booker.
In a 2013 interview, Betsy DeVos indicated that she found inspiration in the article by notorious libertarian economist Milton Friedman titled, “The Role of Government in Education.” Notably, Friedman stated in that article, which was published in 1955, that he is amenable to racial segregation in “privately conducted” schools. He wrote, “So long as the schools are publicly operated, the only choice is between forced nonsegregation and forced segregation; and if I must choose between these evils, I would choose the former as the lesser. Privately conducted schools can resolve the dilemma … Under such a system, there can develop exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools, and mixed schools.”
But to understand DeVos’s political footprint, it is necessary to examine her powerful family dynasty, whose well-heeled members chair the Orlando Magic.
As Benjy Hansen-Bundy and Andy Kroll previously noted in Mother Jones, “Members of the DeVos family rank among the most generous benefactors of the conservative movement and the Christian right, up there with the Bradleys, the Coorses, and the Kochs. Not only has billionaire Amway cofounder Richard DeVos Sr. cut checks to anti-union and anti-tax efforts, but these days he’s also a fixture at the Koch brothers’ invite-only donor summits. Name an organization — Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity, the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation — and odds are a DeVos family member has donated to it.”
Betsy DeVos is the sister of Erik Prince, the founder of the mercenary company Blackwater that profited off of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Four of the company’s employees were found guilty for a 2007 massacre in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, in which 17 Iraqi civilians were killed, including a child as young as 9. Following bad publicity, the company has since changed its name to Academi, and Prince, no longer working there, is reportedly under investigation for money laundering.
Betsy DeVos’s husband Dick played an instrumental role in pushing in 2012 for legislation to make Michigan a right-to-work state, and disgraced Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder responded to her appointment with accolades.
“Donald Trump’s pick of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education proves that having a shortage of experience means nothing as long you don’t have a shortage of money,” Progress Michigan executive director Lonnie Scott said Wednesday. “The DeVos family has been using their deep pockets to influence the Michigan legislature for years and it looks like they have finally bought their way into a presidential administration as well. The DeVos family education plan has been a disaster for Michigan and we are truly saddened that Trump decided to import their failed ideas to Washington D.C. Progress Michigan remains committed to holding the DeVos family accountable and fighting for all children to have access to excellent public schools.”