If you’ve been paying attention at all to the controversy surrounding the Senate confirmation of Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos as education secretary in President Trump’s administration, you probably know these things:
*She is a billionaire.
*She supports charter schools and vouchers.
*She said that schools should be allowed to have guns to protect from “potential grizzlies.”
*She never went to public school. Neither did her children.
But here are some things you may not know about the new education secretary, who won the job in the Senate only after Mike Pence became the first vice president to ever break a tie to confirm a Cabinet nominee.
* She did not support Donald Trump for most of the 2016 presidential campaign cycle. DeVos has long been a close ally of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and she donated to his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
* She attended Holland Christian Schools, a private Christian school system in Michigan, where she was on the honor roll and played percussion in the school symphony and was a member of the swim team; her husband, Dick DeVos, attended the same elementary school. She then enrolled at Calvin College, a Christian school in Michigan, where she graduated in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in business economics. Hundreds of students and alumni from Calvin wrote an open letter urging the Senate not to confirm her, saying that she does not have “a strong commitment” to public education.
* FollowTheMoney.org says that DeVos and her husband made campaign contributions totaling $47,559,870 between 2000 and 2015. In 1997, she wrote in Roll Call, a publication covering Congress:
“My family is the biggest contributor of soft money to the Republican National Committee. I have decided to stop taking offense,” she wrote, “at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment.”
* Her father, Edgar Dale Prince, founded an auto supply business that grew into a billion-dollar business. Her brother, Erik Prince, was a Navy SEAL who founded Blackwater, the private military security company, in 1997. Her husband, Dick, is part of the family that owns the billion-dollar Amway business. Forbes estimates that Richard DeVos, Dick’s father, and family have a net worth of $5.3 billion.
* DeVos agreed to divest from more than 100 entities to avoid potential conflicts of interest with her new job — but one company in which she maintained her investment is Neurocore, though she stepped down from the board of directors. The New York Times wrote:
Ms. DeVos and her husband, Richard DeVos Jr., are major financial backers of Neurocore, a Michigan company that operates drug-free “brain performance centers” that claim to have worked with 10,000 children and adults to overcome problems with attention deficit disorder, autism, sleeplessness and stress. …
Not all experts are convinced of the effectiveness of Neurocore’s methods. A 2013 article in The Detroit News questioned the efficacy of diagnostic testing for A.D.H.D. through electroencephalography, citing an article in the American Academy of Pediatrics News that suggested more research was needed.
* She gave a speech at the SXSWedu convention in Austin in 2015 in which she slammed the public-education system and teachers and the D.C. public school system. Here’s what she said:
“As far as good teachers and recognizing good teachers, I couldn’t agree with you more that an excellent teacher should be a very highly valued individual. And I think that teaching has become very deprofessionalized over the years, as it’s been part of an industry that has been very closed to itself and, I would argue, very self-serving. I believe that opening up the system will go a long way toward placing a renewed value on the quality of a good teacher. And I believe that more young people will be encouraged to enter the field of teaching if we have the kind of innovation and creativity in education in general that I think would be unleashed by the notion of full, open educational choice.”
“It’s a battle of Industrial Age versus the Digital Age. It’s the Model T versus the Tesla. It’s old factory model versus the new Internet model. It’s the Luddites versus the future. We must open up the education industry — and let’s not kid ourselves that it isn’t an industry — we must open it up to entrepreneurs and innovators.
This is how families without means will get access to a world-class education. This is how a student who’s not learning in their current model can find an individualized learning environment that will meet their needs.
We are the beneficiaries of start-ups, ventures, and innovation in every other area of life, but we don’t have that in education because it’s a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. It’s a monopoly, a dead end. And the best and brightest innovators and risk-takers steer way clear of it. As long as education remains a closed system, we will never see the education equivalents of Google, Facebook, Amazon, PayPal, Wikipedia or Uber. We won’t see any real innovation that benefits more than a handful of students.”
“I would like you to think about this as if we were talking about your own children. Here are your two choices. Alpha School is a high-performing school, with graduation rates ranging from 70-90 percent, depending on the year. Beta School is a low-performing school, with graduation rates hovering around 50 percent. If you were given the choice between Alpha School and Beta School for your children, which would you choose? If you chose Alpha School, then in Washington, D.C., you chose a private or charter school for your kids. If you chose Beta School, then in Washington, D.C., you chose the traditional public school.”
(Clarification: Adding last name to DeVos’s father)