President-elect Donald Trump announced Wednesday that he would nominate Betsy DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist with deep ties to the Christian Reformed community in Michigan, as his education secretary.
DeVos is politically known in Michigan for her push for private school voucher programs, a position that has been controversial within public education circles. But in religious circles, the DeVos name is synonymous with key philanthropic efforts in Christian communities. DeVos, 58, graduated from Calvin College, a Christian Reformed Church school that is named after the famed Protestant reformer John Calvin, where the DeVos name is well-known.
The DeVos family, heirs to the Amway Corp. fortune, are prolific donors in Michigan Republican and religious circles. DeVos is a former Michigan Republican Party chairwoman whose husband unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2006.
She is daughter of Edgar Prince, the founder of Prince Corp., an automobile parts supplier based in Holland, Mich. While her mother, Elsa, and her husband’s parents have supported anti-gay marriage efforts in the past, Betsy Devos has focused primarily on education.
DeVos has been member and an elder at the large nondenominational Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, which was formerly led by popular author Rob Bell. Former president of Fuller Seminary Rich Mouw said he served on a committee with her to replace Bell, and he said DeVos is heavily influenced by Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch writer and Calvinist theologian.
“I wouldn’t consider her to be right wing,” Mouw said. “She’s a classic free-enterprise conservative. She takes public life, art and politics very seriously.”
Unlike an individualistic evangelical approach, she has focused on the common good and has seen education as a big part of that, said Doug Koopman, a political scientist at Calvin College. She will not likely be one to focus on curriculum issues like evolution and creationism, which has been a concern in some conservative Christian circles. Instead, her concerns about school vouchers reflect a larger concern about what’s best for the public.
“It would be a mistake to put her in the Religious Right camp. That’s not who she is,” Koopman said, noting that Trump has drawn heavily from a business-minded crowd so far.
DeVos did not support Trump’s candidacy, telling the Washington Examiner in March that he “does not represent the Republican Party.” Her family foundation has donated between $10,000-$25,000 to the Clinton Foundation, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.
DeVos is like a mix between the philanthropic efforts of Melinda Gates and the business-mindedness of Mitt Romney, said Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, an umbrella for Christian schools.
It’s unclear whether DeVos will fit in with Trump’s other cabinet choice, like incoming White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
“I don’t think whether you like people is relevant at the Cabinet level. It’s not like you’re at the PTA,” Hoogstra said. “I think that Betsy DeVos will bring her best intelligence and judgment and she will speak truth to power.”
Her policy positions on school vouchers appear to be motivated by her Christian faith. When her children were school-age, she visited the Potter’s House Christian School in Grand Rapids. She told the Philanthropy Roundtable that parents “were doing everything in their power to have their kids in an environment that was safe, where they were learning, and where the atmosphere was just electric with curiosity, with love for one another.” DeVos and her husband began supporting individual students, and that “grew into a larger commitment.”
Her appointment was met Wednesday with concern from Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, said her support for vouchers raise church-state concerns.
“Americans are always free to send their children to private schools and religious schools, but raiding the public treasury to subsidize private businesses and religious organizations runs against the public trust and the Constitution,” Moline said. “It suggests that he has little regard for our nation’s public schools or the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.”
DeVos has not said much on Common Core, the set of math and reading guidelines adopted by most states. However, she has ties to several pro-Common Core organizations, Emma Brown reports.
The choice of DeVos is likely the handiwork of Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who as governor of Indiana expanded vouchers, said Julie Ingersoll, professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida.
“It’s been a long-standing goal of the Religious Right to replace public education with Christian education,” she said. “The long term strategy of how to change culture is through education.”
DeVos and her husband have supported a range of political, social and cultural efforts in Michigan and around the country. They served as producers for the 2012 Broadway show, “Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson,” about the Pentecostal evangelist and media celebrity in the 1920s and 1930s.
The family foundation has also given grants to wide number of religious institutions, including the Willow Creek Association outside of Chicago, Grove City College, a Christian college in Pennsylvania and Hope College, a Christian college in Michigan. The family is behind Grand Rapids’ Art Prize, a 3-week public art event that attracts 400,000 every year.
This article has been updated several times to reflect new interviews.