President Trump greets Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during an event celebrating Women’s History Month on March 29 in Washington. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The slew of Democratic victories in November’s state and local elections were seen as a rebuke of President Trump, whose approval ratings have hit historical lows. This post looks at where his education policies, led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, were part of the debate during the election season.

This piece was written by Darcie Cimarusti, a  New Jersey public school activist who blogs at Mother Crusader and is communications director at the Network for Public Education, and Carol Burris, a former award-winning New York high school principal who is executive director of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit advocacy group. Burris was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and the same organization named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year in 2013. Burris has been chronicling problems with modern school reform and school choice for years on this blog.

By Carol Burris and Darcie Cimarusti

The November elections were, without question, a referendum on the leadership and administration of Donald Trump. Given that his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is as unpopular as any of his Cabinet members, it is not surprising that her policies were issues in some state and school board outcomes. Here are a few examples of what we’ll call the “DeVos effect.”

Virginia

The most important race of 2017 was the hotly contested race for the governor of Virginia, in which a strong public education advocate, Democrat Ralph Northam, faced off against Republican Ed Gillespie. Gillespie fully embraced the entire DeVos agenda — charter expansion, online virtual schools, home schools, and vouchers in the form of tax credits and education savings accounts. There was not an inch of policy daylight between Gillespie and DeVos.

This should come as no surprise. Gillespie received over $100,000 in campaign contributions from the DeVos family, including a donation from the Secretary’s husband, Dick DeVos. Americans for Prosperity, which is controlled by the Koch brothers, launched a digital video in which a charter school leader criticized Northam for being the vote that stopped the neo-voucher “educational savings accounts.”

Northam, who was supported by the teachers union, has been a strong and consistent supporter of public education. As stated on his website, “Ralph took tie-breaking votes to protect Virginia’s public education from being raided with unconstitutional private school vouchers and to keep decisions about public charter schools in the hands of local school boards.”

The election of Gillespie would have been a game changer for public education in the Commonwealth. Virginia is one of a handful of states that allow charter schools to only be authorized by local school boards. In Virginia, charters are subject to the same transparency guidelines as public schools in the state. There are only eight charter schools in Virginia, much to the chagrin of charter advocates.

Northam, who calls himself a “friend of public schools,” will keep privatization out of the state and instead work to strengthen and improve Virginia’s public schools.

New Jersey

The image of a bellicose bully berating teachers became the symbol of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s hostility toward public education. Fond of referring to New Jersey public schools as “failure factories,” Christie more than doubled the number of charter school seats in the state while underfunding the traditional public schools by over $9 billion over the course of his two terms. His administration instituted the use of student scores on the Common Core PARCC exam as a graduation requirement and as 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

The race for a new governor was a faceoff between Christie’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, and former investment banker Phil Murphy. Murphy handily defeated Guadagno after securing 56 percent of the vote.

Guadagno promised to carry on one of her boss’s favorite education policies — the unprecedented expansion of charter schools in the state. She also vowed to carry the torch for the voucher program Christie failed to enact. Her claim that vouchers and charters were a “constitutional right” resulted in the National Education Association PAC, Education Votes, connecting Guadagno to DeVos.

Murphy garnered the early support of the New Jersey Education Association. His promises to “scrap PARCC on day one,” do away with state mandated high school exit exams and take test scores out of teacher evaluations was a strong repudiation of Christie policies. As a candidate, Murphy called for a “timeout” on charters, citing troubling governance, funding and demographic issues, and vowed to bring “both sides of this issue together in New Jersey.”

Colorado

The school improvement mantra of Colorado has been consistent for over a decade — reform is good; unions are bad. However, that mantra may no longer be resonating with the state’s voters. The reform movement, which has now become the status quo, took a punch to the gut in three important school board races in Denver, Aurora and Douglas County. Despite outside funding, often with dark money, only two of the 11 “reform” candidates in those three races were victorious.

As we reported here in The Answer Sheet, Raising Colorado, an Independent Expenditure Committee, is a funnel for dark money supplied by the New York-based Education Reform Now Advocacy (ERNA), which is the 501(c)(4) arm of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). ERNA contributed $465,000 to Raising Colorado in 2014 and about another $100,000 to other similar organizations in the state. In 2015, ERNA contributed an additional $375,000 to the IEC. Much of that money was dedicated to helping candidates backed by Raising Colorado seize total control of the Denver school board.

This year’s reporting (which is still not complete) shows that Raising Colorado spent $390,764 supporting four “reform” candidates in Denver. Even so, only two of the four won. Raising Colorado incumbent Mike Johnson was defeated, as was newcomer Rachel Espiritu. Raising Colorado spent nearly $150,000 in support of Espiritu’s candidacy and an additional $13,765 to oppose one of her rivals, Jennifer Bacon, who beat her.

During the campaign, reform candidates who supported the expansion of charter schools were linked in campaign literature to Betsy DeVos, which became a source of controversy in the election.

Denver was not the only school board race in which the New York-based Raising Colorado interfered. Four of the seven seats on the Board of Education of the nearby Aurora Public Schools were up for election as well. Three of the candidates, Gail Pough, Miguel Lovato, and Lea Steed were the “reform” candidates who received substantial support from Raising Colorado — $170,265 in total.

The district voters rejected all of the Raising Colorado backed candidates who supported charter schools and other market driven reforms. Instead, the four candidates supported by the teachers’ union and other community groups swept all four seats.

The Douglas County school board election also pitted candidates who support corporate reforms against those who strongly support public schools. In the case of Douglas County, there was an added issue — school board-supported vouchers.

In 2011, the Douglas County Board of Education created controversy by attempting to start a district-created voucher program. The legitimacy of that program has been working its way through the courts. The Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity launched a six-figure campaign to defend vouchers — which they euphemistically refer to as “educational opportunities” — shortly before the November election. Their petition, entitled Stand Up for Education Freedom in Colorado, garnered only 129 signatures.

A Texas ally of Betsy DeVos, Alex Cranberg, made a $20,000 contribution to the voucher-friendly candidates. Cranberg had made even larger donations to conservative, pro-voucher Douglas County candidates in 2013.

Cranberg has a long history with DeVos lobby organizations and PACs. In 2008, Cranberg was a board member of Advocates for Choice, which changed its name to the American Federation for Children (AFC) in 2009. Cranberg was also a board member and donor to All Children Matter, another “school choice” advocacy group led by DeVos and heavily funded by the DeVos and Walton families.

Despite the interference by outsiders such as the Koch brothers and Cranberg, the voters of Douglas Country had enough of the conservative brand of reform. All four candidates were defeated by public school advocates who had the support of community groups and the local teachers union.

Some would like to distinguish the outside money in Denver and Aurora as different from that of Douglas. However, the sources are not as different as one might think. The 2008 990 of Alliance for Choice, the sister organization to Advocates for Choice, lists Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and the co-founder of Democrats for Education Reform, Boykin Curry, on its board of directors, along with Betsy DeVos. Curry continued on that board, led by DeVos until 2014, even as he sat on the board of Education Reform Now Advocacy, which funds Raising Colorado. And the donor list for the DeVos’s All Children Matter includes the Koch brothers as well as New York’s Bruce Kovner, a donor to Andrew Cuomo donor and a charter school supporter.

What can we conclude about these results?

First, it is clear that Betsy DeVos has removed the veil that has hidden the agenda of many in the school choice movement — a war against traditional public school districts — and the public is catching on.

Second, voters are distinguishing the difference between outside money in local school board races, and the money and activism that comes from the local unions. As one public school advocate told us, “I know the interests of the union, but all of this dark money from outside … That worries me a lot.”