June 2019 Church & State Magazine | Featured

Despite the gaffes, the controversies, the disastrous public appearances and the lack of success in her pet project of expanding private school vouchers nationwide, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos can claim one dubious honor: She’s one of the most-tenured members of President Donald Trump’s administration.

DeVos was among Trump’s first cabinet nominees, named about two weeks after his election and on the same day he nominated Nikki Haley to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Only Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former CIA director and now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were announced before DeVos. And of these four early nominees, only DeVos and Pompeo are still standing – noteworthy in an administration known for its high turnover.

Despite the occasional rumor that she was about to resign, DeVos has hung on. Recent news reports by The Washington Post and the Associated Press have attributed her staying power in part to a combination of Trump’s lack of interest in education, keeping her off his radar, and her appeal to Trump’s evangelical Christian base of supporters.

Trump “has staffed his administration and surrounded himself with people who have deep roots and street cred in the faith community. Betsy would be at or near the top of that list,” Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition and a member of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board, recently told The Post.

DeVos has deep ties to the Religious Right, and she’s vocal about how her conservative Christian faith influences her work to advance private school vouchers. In January, she told the Presidents’ Conference of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, “There is nothing I do that my faith perspective doesn’t inform in some way.” And she and her billionaire husband, Richard DeVos Jr., infamously said during a 2001 gathering of conservative Christian philanthropists that their work to funnel public money toward private, religious schools was a way to “advance God’s kingdom” and would lead to “greater kingdom gain.”

Betsy DeVos

Photo: DeVos speaking to Lesley Stahl in 2018. Credit: Screen capture from CBS' "60 Minutes."

DeVos was a bit of a dark horse when Trump nominated her, but she was no stranger to Americans United and others who advocate for strong, fully funded public schools that welcome and serve all children. She has long been a crusader for private school vouchers, heading up the pro-voucher American Federation for Children and contributing huge sums of her family fortune in an effort to create voucher programs in her home state of Michigan and across the country.

Since Trump advocated for spending billions of federal dollars on private school vouchers during his presidential campaign, DeVos shouldn’t have been a surprising pick despite her total lack of experience in public education. And both of them have continued to advocate for federally funded vouchers, though without much success so far.

The Push For Federally Funded Vouchers

In March, Trump announced an education budget for the next fiscal year that included a proposal to divert “an unprecedented level of resources” to a new private school voucher program – up to $50 billion of taxpayer funds over 10 years. The budget also proposed to spend $30 million on the private school voucher program in Washington, D.C., doubling funding from the previous year’s budget request for the only federally funded voucher system in the country.

This new funding for private education, coupled with Trump’s proposal to cut the overall education budget by 12 percent, would drain even more desperately needed resources away from the public schools that educate 90 percent of American schoolchildren.

The National Coalition for Public Education (NCPE), which Americans United co-chairs, condemned the proposal: “We strongly oppose the president’s enormous, unprecedented investment in private school vouchers. … If the administration truly wants to improve education for students across the country, the solution is to fund our public schools rather than diverting taxpayer dollars to private, mostly religious schools.”

Americans United, NCPE and other education advocates object to private school vouchers for numerous reasons. Voucher programs violate religious freedom because they force taxpayers to fund religious education. Many studies have shown vouchers don’t improve students’ academic performance and may even impair it. They direct public money to private schools that don’t adequately protect students from discrimination or provide services to students with disabilities. They lack accountability and prop up poor-quality schools. In short, they’re bad education policy.

Nonetheless, days before Trump’s budget announcement, DeVos sponsored a press conference with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and U.S. Rep. Brad­ley Byrne (R-Ala.) to endorse their new legislative proposal to create “Education Freedom Scholarships.” The patriotic-sounding name attempts to shield what’s really just another private school voucher scheme. The legislation would redirect $5 billion in public funds every year to dole out dollar-for-dollar federal tax credits to businesses and wealthy people who “donate” money to fund private school vouchers.

With incredible hypocrisy, DeVos tried to pass off this voucher proposal as privately funded. In April she tweeted: “Despite what some may try to tell you…Education Freedom Scholarships are privately funded and do not take any money from public schools.” Her tweet was accompanied by an image illustrating the supposed path of the money involved in the program – but failed to include the billions in taxpayer-funded tax credits.

DeVos Voucher Graphic Corrected

Image: AU "corrected" DeVos' pro-voucher image that failed to acknowledge the billions in government funding needed for her private school voucher proposal.

The Post’s “Fact Check­er” column warranted this fib three out of a possible four Pinocchios: “Getting down to brass tacks, the federal government would be forgoing up to $5 billion in revenue to cover the cost of DeVos’s Education Freedom Scholarships. Private actors may be fronting this money with their donations, but they would get a dollar-for-dollar tax credit in return. That’s money that could have been put to another use, such as public schools or the military.”

Elise Helgesen Aguilar, AU’s federal policy counsel, has noted that DeVos and Trump will have an uphill battle to ram their private school voucher plans through, with Democrats in charge of the House and even some pro-voucher voices speaking out against the plan. “It’s unlikely that the bill will garner enough support to pass in this Con­gress,” Helgesen Aguilar wrote on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog.

DeVos' State Vouchers Advocacy

Perhaps that’s why DeVos and Trump have also been campaigning for private school voucher programs in several states this spring. DeVos visited Tennessee April 1 to promote newly elec­ted Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s vouch­er plan. Later that month, Trump tweeted his support for Lee’s bill: “Time to get this done, so important!” Tennessee’s legislature subsequently approved the plan on May 1.

DeVos also tweeted her support for Florida’s new Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis when he announced his private school voucher plan in February. Florida legislators passed the $130 million plan and DeSantis signed it into law on May 9 – using a private religious school in Miami as the stage, according to the Miami Herald.

Nik Nartowicz, AU’s state policy counsel, wrote to Florida lawmakers to warn them that this new voucher program would violate the state constitution, which has provisions that prevent taxpayer money from funding religious or non-public education. His letter referenced the Florida Supreme Court’s 2006 decision to strike down an earlier private school voucher program in the Bush v. Holmes case brought by Americans United and allies.

DeVos also made a trip to Kentucky this spring to visit pro-voucher Gov. Matt Bevin (R), but they confined their voucher support primarily to the federal proposal because Kentucky lawmakers had already declined to advance a state voucher bill amidst widespread protests from educators.

The Kentucky trip generated yet more controversy for DeVos because the education roundtable she and Bevin hosted not only excluded representatives from public schools but also refused to admit some Lexington student journalists who wanted to cover the open-press event for their high school newspaper.

It was just the latest in a two-year string of embarrassments for DeVos, from her Senate testimony citing grizzly bears as a key issue in the school safety/gun violence debate to her statement that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were “real pioneers when it comes to school choice” – ignoring that not much choice was involved in the founding of HBCUs due to policies of segregation when black students were barred from most colleges.

Despite her rocky tenure and rumored distance from Trump, DeVos has plugged along, pursuing her mission of defunding and privatizing public education.

“She doesn’t need this job, and I think that actually gives her some liberty to stay focused,” her chief of staff, Nathan Bailey, told the AP. “The noise that tends to distract and bog down people who are more focused on the politics of things, it doesn’t get to her.”

Public school advocates have a very different view of DeVos. U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, told the AP, “Her focus has been on voucher programs and school choice. I think the focus ought to be on students being educated in public schools.”

Not much has changed with De­Vos, public education or the Trump administration since U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said this to The Huffington Post almost a year into her tenure: “There is no one in America more unpopular than Betsy DeVos. To have somebody who scorns public education, who never went to a public school, her children never went to a public school ... to be in charge of public education is an outrage.”