This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The debate over privatizing public schools is about to heat up, fueled by President-elect Donald Trump’s controversial choice for secretary of education.
Billionaire Betsy DeVos is the biggest donor behind the largely right-wing effort to promote charter schools and taxpayer-funded vouchers over traditional public education. And she’s been at it a long time.
Pennsylvanians may be more familiar with the local super PAC Students First PA. It is funded by the national organization Americans for Children (AFC), which was founded and is chaired by DeVos. Students First PA is supported by four local millionaires: Jeffrey and Jenine Yaas, Arthur Dantchik and Joel Greenberg, all principal investors in the Susquehanna Real Estate Group. Greenberg is also on the board of AFC.
The PAC spent $7.6 million on Pennsylvania political contributions in the 2014 election cycle alone, and it has donated to the campaigns of eight state senators on the 11-member Senate Education Committee, and seven on the House Education Committee.
But DeVos’ primary role is on the national stage. The AFC and its precursor organizations founded super PACS in more than a dozen states that contribute to the campaigns of local politicians who sponsors bills for policies such as voucher systems and the expansion of charter schools.
Over the years, her organizations have run afoul of campaign finance laws. In 2008, one was fined $5.2 million for violating Ohio election law in funneling money to pro-voucher, pro-charter legislative candidates.
“My first reaction is that I am surprised that somebody who is so closely associated with the corrupting influence of dark money in politics and backroom dealing wants to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight of public service and the scrutiny that comes with it,” said City Councilwoman Helen Gym of DeVos’ nomination.
“She’s meddled in Pennsylvania politics, but she is used to the privileges of the extremely wealthy and is not in tune with the millions of children and families under the care of her department. For that, we’ll see a dramatic disconnect.”
Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters PA, warned that under DeVos, charter expansion can be expected, “regardless of the outcomes in these schools.” She said that with this appointment, “advocates who care about equitable access to quality education for all students and taxpayers who don’t want their hard-earned tax dollars to be siphoned out of schools and into shareholders’ pockets need to be ready to pick up the phones and take to the streets to stand up for our children and their public schools.”
Involved with ALEC
DeVos is deeply involved with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which churns out far-right legislation for states to use, including bills to promote vouchers and the Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, under which corporations get tax credits for donating to organizations that provide scholarships for students to attend private schools – a system that some call “vouchers lite.”
ALEC is funded by donations from corporate members and conservative billionaires such as the Koch, Walton, and DeVos families, as well as Pennsylvania’s own Richard Mellon Scaife, a co-founder of ALEC.
DeVos is a major contributor to ALEC’s Education Task Force, which writes sample legislation before it’s distributed to state politicians. Her AFC is a member of the task force.
In other words, DeVos is both responsible for writing pro-privatization legislation and funding the campaigns of local politicians who present that legislation in their own states and whose committees pass it through the state legislature.
A report by People for the American Way quotes Joseph Bast, president and CEO of the Heartland Institute-, which is also funded by the Koch, Walton and Scaife foundations. He says that “Complete privatization of schooling might be desirable, but this objective is politically impossible for the time being. Vouchers are a type of reform that is possible now and would put us on the path to further privatization.”
According to the Detroit Free Press, DeVos’ organization spent $25,000 a day in one campaign cycle when Michigan was contemplating legislation to impose greater oversight on charter schools.
“If you’re wondering what kind of education secretary Betsy DeVos will be, look no further than the destruction she has wrought in defunding and dismantling Detroit’s public schools,” Gym said. “Her policies don’t produce better schools or better outcomes — but they do disrupt and undermine communities.”
DeVos is “an extremist ideologue” who has “one idea, which is vouchers, privatization, and defunding of public education,” said Gym. That and “her track record of carelessness about campaign funding violations … makes her uniquely unsuited to this job. She uses money to buy influence and won’t bring anything else to the table besides her blind arrogance about the policies she peddles that have done a huge disservice to millions of students and families.”
In reacting to the appointment, teachers’ unions were predictably upset, while voucher and charter advocates congratulated her.
“The president-elect, in his selection of Betsy DeVos, has chosen the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward since President Carter created a Cabinet-level Department of Education,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. “In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding, and destroying public education in America.”
Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, president of the National Education Association, said DeVos “has consistently pushed a corporate agenda to privatize, deprofessionalize, and impose cookie-cutter solutions to public education.”
By contrast, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools congratulated DeVos, saying she “has worked to empower parents and give families strong educational options, so they can do what is best for their child.”
The Black Alliance for Educational Options, a pro-charter group, called her “a very gifted and well-respected education leader” and “strong champion for parental choice, ensuring that all children, regardless of race or economic status, have access to excellent schools. We have no doubt she will make a great education secretary.”
If DeVos is confirmed, the staff of the Education Department could well be decimated. For one thing, it may halt its newly energized focus on civil rights data collection and enforcement. That office in the department has recently shone a light on racial and ethnic disparities in a number of areas including discipline policies, special education placement, and access to high-quality teachers and Advanced Placement courses.
From Michigan’s Amway family
DeVos, the sister of Blackwater founder Erik Prince, was the chair of the Michigan Republican Party during the 1990s after playing a major role as a contributor to the state party in the 1980s. She married billionaire Richard DeVos Jr., whose father founded Amway Corp., a retailer found guilty by the Federal Trade Commission of price-fixing and making exaggerated income claims in the 1980s, and more recently had to pay more than $50 million in a class action settlement to the allegations that the corporation committed fraud and racketeering and functioned as a pyramid scheme.
A Center for Public Integrity report described the DeVos family and their business interests as the fifth-largest contributor in the 2003-04 election cycle, with all of the money going to Republicans. The Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation is also one of three conservative foundations responsible for financing the Citizens United legal challenge about campaign finance. It led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that created the current super PAC system that allows for unlimited political contributions – like those made by Students First PA.
In a 1997 op-ed piece for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, Betsy DeVos wrote:
“My family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party. … I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.”
Along with her three siblings, Betsy DeVos sits on the board of the Edgar & Elsa Prince Foundation, a major donor to groups that advocate for the privatization of education, such as the Education Freedom Fund and the Heritage Foundation.
Richard DeVos spoke in 2002 at the Heritage Foundation – also funded by the Koch, Walton, and Scaife family foundations – where he outlined a strategy for “rewards or consequences” to state legislators depending on their support or resistance to school choice legislation. He specified that vouchers should be promoted by local groups and could not be “viewed as only a conservative idea.” He emphasized the importance of bringing a few local Democrats on board, which explains the pattern of donations from Students First PA going to a few local Democrats, in spite of its conservative funders.
DeVos’s AFC was originally named Advocates for School Choice, which funded other local groups in at least 12 states. One of those was All Children Matter, which was founded using roughly $5 million in donations from John and Alice Walton, heirs to the billionaire family that owns Walmart.
In 2010, after All Children Matter was fined $5.2 million for violating campaign finance laws in Ohio, both the DeVos and Walton organizations disbanded and reformed under the new name: American Federation for Children. The AFC’s website links to right-wing think tanks, funded by the same foundations as AFC, which the site labels “national allied organizations:” the Cato Institute, the Center for Education Reform, Heartland Institute, Heritage Institute, Black Alliance for Educational Options, Center for Education Reform, K12 inc., and the (Milton) Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.
Using seed money from AFC, Betsy DeVos created the Students First PA super PAC in 2010 to promote legislation that would create a school voucher system in Pennsylvania.
Joe Watkins, a former lobbyist and aide to president George H. W. Bush, was appointed to run the super PAC. In 2011 the PAC hired BrabenderCox, a major Republican public relations firm, to help organize a rally in support of pro-voucher legislation in Harrisburg, co-written by Sen. Anthony Williams (D).
Students First collaborated on the rally with the Tea Party organization Freedom Works.
Larry Feinberg, co-chairman of the Keystone State Education Commission, said that the voucher bill used language straight out of a template written by ALEC.
“They put out sample bills, suggesting language, and if you look at any school choice bills the language is cut and paste,” Feinberg said. “The notion of opportunity scholarships, the bills about alternative authorizers, creating an opportunity school district — almost all of that comes directly from ALEC.”
Sharif el-Mekki, principal of Mastery Shoemaker Charter School and a strong proponent of school choice, didn’t automatically endorse DeVos, saying that it will be difficult for educators to “navigate under a Trump presidency.”
Still, he said, if DeVos is “all about accountability for all schools including charters, that may mean something.”