Betsy DeVos, a Conservative philanthropist and Republican Party fund-raiser who was tapped last week by President-elect Donald Trump as education secretary, is known for her advocacy of charter schools, private school vouchers and an unclear vision for higher education. Yet her pedigree makes her something of an X-factor in leading the country's education policy, and she has become something of a lightning rod among who fear she will gravitate toward less regulation at all levels of education.
Little is known about DeVos's views on federal higher education policy; virtually all of her advocacy and fund-raising efforts have been for K-12 education. DeVos had a hand in making Michigan charter schools among the least regulated in the country. Private companies run about 80% of charter schools nationwide.
Charter schools are touted as better alternatives to failing public schools, but the majority are privately-run and generally operate with less public or regulatory scrutiny. Their teachers are generally not unionized and they typically hire people little or no with no experience who typically don't make teaching a career. Vouchers let parents use public money, usually from state governments, to pay for some or all of the tuition when they send their kids to private schools. Problems arise when voucher money falls short.
A graduate of the Holland Christian schools of Holland Michigan. DeVos's husband, Richard DeVos runs Amway, a marketing enterprise founded by his father and known for selling beauty and home health products. Amway was subject to a 1979 Federal Trade Commission investigation for alleged pyramid selling schemes and was found guilty of price fixing. In 2010 Amway settled a class action suit filed in Federal District Court in California for $56 million, while admitting no wrongdoing or liability.
While her immediate predecessor, John E. King, had long experience as an administrator, DeVos has something in common with the man King replaced, Arne Duncan, Barack Obama's pick to lead The Department of Education (ED) when he took office in 2009. Although he was CEO of the Chicago Public School system, Duncan had no administrative experience in higher education when he became ED secretary, a position he held for six years. GOP higher ed activists such as John Kline (R-Minn), chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), a member of the same committee, may have an increased influence.
While DeVos has been a denizen of the K-12 space, DeVos's complete lack of experience at a federal agency, with higher education or with the burgeoning student loan crisis has aroused concern in higher ed circles.
Neal McCluskey, director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom, wrote on its website, "I have no idea where DeVos stands on early childhood (education) or higher education issues, and the latter, especially, is gigantic, with Washington furnishing tens-of-billions of dollars in student loans, among other higher ed matters." Referring to the Department of Education, McCluskey added that "DeVos will essentially be taking over a hugely bureaucratic lending company—with lots of regulatory power—that on a day-to-day basis could prove to be a far greater burden than she expected."
Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Interfaith Alliance, noted the DeVos family's financial support of private religious schools and what he called her "attempts at undermining the nation's public school system." Moline called the Trump's ED pick "deeply disappointing. It suggests that he has little regard for our nation's public schools or the constitutional principle of separation of church and state."
Even if DeVos's bona fides as a government administrator are missing, she's done well in advocating for candidates that champion vouchers, charter schools and in raising money for those causes. DeVos is chair of the American Federation of Children, which saw 108 of the 121 candidates it supported win elective office this year.