President-elect Donald Trump’s announcement Wednesday that he would nominate GOP megadonor Betsy DeVos to be secretary of education was welcomed by Republicans, particularly those passionate about charter schools and school vouchers, which DeVos has championed.
Progressives, meanwhile, warned that her selection was dangerous for public education and pointed to other controversial causes, including anti-LGBT initiatives and anti-abortion measures, that DeVos and her family have supported.
Here’s what you need to know about Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Education.
Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick, have been compared to the Koch brothers for their financial involvement in Republican politics. According to a 2014 Mother Jones profile of the DeVos clan, the family has spent at least $200 million on conservative causes. Their contributions have gone out far and wide, in terms of the politicians they’ve backed and the issues they’ve championed. No family donated more in support of Republican candidates in 2015 than the DeVoses, according to an analysis by The Hill.
DeVos’ father-in-law, Richard DeVos, co-founded Amway and owns the NBA team the Orlando Magic. The DeVos family’s business ventures and political beliefs often work in tandem, Mother Jones reported, noting that a free market think-tank is run out of the Amway headquarters. Dick DeVos, meanwhile, ran unsuccessfully for Michigan governor in 2006, a campaign on which the couple spent $35.4 million, according to the Washington Post.
Betsy DeVos herself has worked for a number of GOP campaign outfits, and now runs a political action committee along with her husband that has supported numerous Republican politicians.
“I know a little something about soft money, as my family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party,” DeVos wrote in a 1997 Roll Call guest column, according to Jane Mayer’s book “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.”
“I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point,” DeVos wrote.
Much of DeVos’ political activity has been focused on the expansion of charter schools and school vouchers, putting her selection in line with Trump’s campaign proposal to shift $20 billion in federal education funding into state block grants to enroll children in charter and private schools.
The DeVos family bankrolled a failed 2000 Michigan ballot initiative that would have required that students enrolled in failing public school districts be offered vouchers for private school tuition.
Though the measure was rejected soundly by voters, the DeVoses doubled down on the issue and formed a political action committee to support pro-voucher candidates nationwide, according to ChalkBeat, a nonprofit news organization focused on education. They also operate philanthropic organizations known for giving to entities aligned with the charter school movement, including faith-based schools and conservative think tanks, Inside Philanthropy reported.
School choice is not the only conservative cause with which DeVos has a family tie. Her father, Edgar Prince, helped Gary Bauer create the Family Research Council, an influential social conservative group that opposes gay rights and abortion. Her brother, Erik Prince, is the ex-Navy SEAL who founded the private security firm Blackwater, which was embroiled in controversy over its involvement in the Iraq War.
The DeVos family has also contributed millions of dollars to back candidates supportive of anti-abortion measures, as well as towards groups that oppose same-sex marriage, ReWire reported in March.
Trump’s selection of DeVos was cheered by many in the GOP establishment, as Republicans have mostly rallied around the issue of school choice that had once been considered on the fringe. The DeVos family’s longstanding financial relationship with the Republican Party probably does not hurt either.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, one of Trump’s most bitter primary foes, called DeVos “an outstanding pick for Secretary of Education.”
Not everyone in conservative circles welcomed the announcement, though, given that DeVos has waffled on the topic of Common Core that is so vehemently opposed by the right. The normally pro-Trump website Breitbart News blared in a headline as talk of DeVos’ nomination picked up that she is “pro-Common Core” and that her family donated to the Clinton Foundation.
DeVos on Tuesday afternoon tweeted out a statement clarifying that she was not, in fact, in favor of Common Core, the federal educational standards that have been endorsed by President Obama as well as by some Republicans.
Many of you are asking about Common Core. To clarify, I am not a supporter—period. Read my full stance, here: https://t.co/qB2nAXvX0B
— Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVos) November 23, 2016
Education advocates on the left, particularly those skeptical of school choice, criticized DeVos’ selection for the job.
National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement that DeVos’ “efforts over the years have done more to undermine public education than support students.”
“She has lobbied for failed schemes, like vouchers — which take away funding and local control from our public schools — to fund private schools at taxpayers’ expense,” she said. “These schemes do nothing to help our most-vulnerable students while they ignore or exacerbate glaring opportunity gaps. She has consistently pushed a corporate agenda to privatize, de-professionalize and impose cookie-cutter solutions to public education.”
Randi Weingarten, the president of American Federation of Teachers, said that DeVos was “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee” for education secretary since the cabinet-level position was created.
“In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America,” Weingarten said in a statement.