Eli Broad is a big name in school reform — one that advocates for public education love to hate. But now Broad, a housing and insurance tycoon who poured hundreds of millions of dollars into “transforming” K-12 urban education through market-based changes, just gave them something to cheer about: He came out Wednesday night against the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as President Trump’s education secretary.
He did it on the same day that two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine — announced they would vote against DeVos on the floor, meaning that DeVos opponents need only one more Republican senator to break ranks and vote against her to tank the nomination.
This is more than just one billionaire school activist who believes in school choice going against another billionaire school activist who believes in school choice. It reveals a deep split in the movement to improve public education with corporate-style changes that seek to run schools like businesses and want to greatly expand alternatives to traditional public schools.
Broad is a big donor to Democrats, but corporate-based school restructuring has attracted Republicans and Democrats alike, and the Obama administration pushed states to expand charter schools. Some organizations that support school choice have come out against DeVos, including Democrats for Education Reform, but Broad is one of the most recognizable prominent people to become part of the opposition.
His opposition underscores what has been obvious for some time: that the opposition to DeVos goes far beyond the teachers unions, which have funded some of the campaign against her. Teachers, parents, students and other DeVos critics have staged protests, signed petitions and besieged the offices of U.S. senators with visits, phone calls and messages urging them to oppose her.
The Senate Education Committee voted in favor of her Tuesday and sent the nomination to the floor, with the support of Murkowski and Collins. But both said Wednesday they could not vote for her on the floor of the Senate because DeVos — who has no professional experience in public schools and did not attend one or send her children to one — lacks experience in education, especially in rural areas. The committee chairman, Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), said on the Senate floor Wednesday that she will be confirmed, as did Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the majority whip. To be precise, he said, “She’ll be confirmed — you can take that to the bank.”
DeVos’s opponents were organizing Wednesday to try to push one more Republican senator to oppose her — even though Republican senators are under pressure from the GOP leadership not to break ranks. Republican Senate leaders may also be trying to make deals with Democrats to vote in favor of her, one Republican source said.
Not only was it a surprise that Broad came out against her, but so was the blunt language he used in a letter he sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.):
At the risk of stating the obvious, we must have a Secretary of Education who believes in public education and the need to keep public schools public. We must have a Secretary of Education who will vigorously defend the rights of all students to have safe, fair and equitable learning opportunities and who recognizes the critical role of the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. And after far too many school shootings in this country, we must have a Secretary of Education who believes guns have no place in our schools. In short, I believe she is unprepared and unqualified for the position. As someone who is deeply committed to the belief that all children deserve access to a strong public education, I hope you will join me in opposing Mrs. DeVos’s nomination.”
There’s no chance that McConnell will join him and every chance that Schumer will, but the more important issue is whether Broad can persuade — and in a sense provide cover to — more senators who might want to oppose DeVos.
DeVos has been the most controversial education secretary nominee in the department’s nearly 40-year-history. Her supporters praise her as being devoted to helping children in need and a champion of school choice. Her opponents, like Broad, say she doesn’t believe in public education — having once called it a “dead end” — and wants to privatize it. She says she will not turn her back on traditional public schools; her opponents don’t believe her.
Broad was one of the early members of what education historian and activist Diane Ravitch dubbed “The Billionaire Boys Club,” whose members, including Bill Gates, have spent so much money on corporate school restructuring that it has had a major effect on public policy. He once tried to raise nearly half a billion dollars to open enough charter schools in Los Angeles to enroll nearly half of the students in the country’s second-largest district.
For years, Broad funded a contest in which he gave away $1 million in awards to high-achieving traditional public urban school districts, but he suspended it in 2015 and launched a $250,000 Broad Prize for charter schools, which he says do a better job than traditional public schools in educating high-needs students in urban areas.
Here’s his letter: