Betsy DeVos And the Future of Education

Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor and an advocate for choice schooling, was selected by President Trump to be Secretary of Education back in late November. Amidst a series of controversial cabinet picks, DeVos’ nomination was met with an uproar from Senate Democrats and civilians alike.

Over the years, DeVos has had an indirect relationship with education through chairing the American Federation for Children. The AFC supports funding charter schools, voucher programs, and private school choice. DeVos seems to prioritize private school education over public school, especially with the AFC’s adamant support of programs that give families the opportunity to pay high tuition costs of private schools. In a 2001 interview, DeVos and her husband stated that her work in education reform, primarily school choice, was a way to “advance God’s Kingdom.”

During a Senate confirmation hearing, in which DeVos was questioned about her knowledge of the public school system, she failed to adequately answer many of the substantive questions asked of her, such as Senator Al Franken’s (D-Minnesota) question regarding her stance on a key debate within the education system: proficiency versus growth. Shared around the internet, the hearing’s viewers, and even many Senators, noted that she was seemingly unprepared and unqualified for the position. On a personal level, DeVos has no experience with public K-12 and higher education public schools. (Neither she nor her children have attended a public school or taken out a loan to pay for college.)

DeVos’ favoritism of private schools and general lack of experience with the public school system is concerning given that 90 percent of children in the United States are in the public school system. Should she be confirmed, DeVos’s decisions as Secretary of Education would directly influence the lives of 50 million children and 100,000 public schools.

Because of this, many constituents took to platforms like Facebook, urging their friends and family to call their Senators in opposition of DeVos’ nomination. On Feb. 1, Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) announced that they would vote against the nomination, thus, placing DeVos in a 50-50 split within the Senate and giving the Democrats 2 of the 3 votes needed to oppose DeVos’ nomination. Without majority support, it requires an unprecedented tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence. This would be the first time a vice president would break a tie on a cabinet nomination.  

Murkowski’s decision to vote against Devos comes after a deluge of letters, calls, and faxes from concerned Alaskans. On the Senate floor Wednesday, she stated, “I have heard from thousands — truly thousands — of Alaskans who shared their concerns about Mrs. DeVos as secretary of education.” In an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Murkowski concluded, “I didn’t have the confidence I needed to provide my support for Mrs. DeVos.”  

In an attempt to sway public opinion, nonprofit organization America Next released an ad campaign in favor of DeVos’ nomination. The 30 second ad paints a picture of the “hateful” Democratic party as the “radical left” who are in denial about the election results. The ad suggests that “DeVos angers the extreme left because she exposes their hypocrisy” and that her goal is for “low-income kids to have the same opportunities as liberal elitists do,” reinforcing her plan to likely engage pro-“School Choice” legislation.

A case for the lack of Republican opposition to DeVos’ nomination is likely due to her family’s history of substantial donations to the Republican party and many Senate re-election campaigns. The Huffington Post did a breakdown of DeVos’ donations to sitting Republican Senators, revealing that current Republicans who are deciding her fate later next week have received nearly $115,000 from DeVos and over $950,000 from her family since the 1980s. During her hearing, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) questioned whether or not DeVos would have been nominated for Secretary of Education had it not been for her family’s significant financial support for the Republican Party.

DeVos’s donations to Republican Senators are causing an uproar among campaign finance reform groups who are calling for these Senators to refrain from voting on her nomination. While Murkowski has received aid from DeVos ($43,200 from the DeVos family), Susan Collins has not benefited from any contributions by the DeVos family. However, both women have received funding from the National Education Association.