Betsy DeVos: A School Choice Advocate Opposed to Choice

To say that I was deeply disappointed by Donald Trump's choice of Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary would be an understatement. Her lack of experience, questionable record with school choice and, the largely dismal results of her philanthropic endeavors are just a few reasons for my concern. However, from a policy perspective, this disappointment did not feel shocking given my lack of confidence in both democrats and republicans regarding education issues. Obama's signature policy, Race to The Top, and the politics of Arne Duncan (both during his tenure leading Chicago public schools and later as Secretary of Education) did not fit my ideal of what is needed for American public education. With that said, what really packed the gut-punch with DeVos's nomination was the personal hypocrisy that existed between her philanthropic actions and her ardent support of school choice.

The ideology of school choice, which has been at the center of DeVos's education based philanthropy, is grounded in the belief that PK-12 education functions best as a marketplace where students, parents, teachers and administrators are left free (or freer) from the constraints of state and federal bureaucracies to make the choices reflective of individual school or community needs. Despite this, DeVos's career and philanthropic investments to date have highlighted her distrust in parents and children to make such choices. It is this proven disconnect from the true meaning of individual freedom that I find dangerous and deeply concerning for students and families. DeVos and her family's support of organizations such as the Family Research Council, whose policies blatantly target and persecute individual liberties, indicates a leader who has little regard for the needs or safety of our nations students and families.

Regardless of your stance on school choice, DeVos's leadership and programmatic support to date is questionable at best. As many have highlighted, the track record of her education focused philanthropy in Michigan, largely funneled via the Great Lakes Education Project, has by most measures failed. DeVos and her husband have put their money into multiple channels from lawmakers to local efforts to expand choice in Michigan over nearly the last 10 years. However, despite this flow of money and support, Michigan consistently ranks lowest in the country in terms of student achievement on a number of metrics. DeVos has supported a choice mechanism that lacks the structure required for student, parent and community success. Within Michigan, DeVos has championed for-profit charter schools, virtual charter schools and private school vouchers. Each of these structures often undermines public education for many students and leaves countless without a choice.

Additionally, DeVos has supported a system that is run by a multiple charting agencies. Unsurprisingly, this system ended up bureaucratic and disorganized leaving not only the chartering process difficult but, more importantly, creating an incredibly challenging landscape for parents and students to navigate. If Michigan is any indication, DeVos lacks the understanding of effective program management to implement successful policies for our nations schools.

To be sure, program management can, and often is, delegated to various deputy secretaries and other staff. But personal convictions can guide a department into dangerous places. The beliefs of a department head not only sets the tone for an agency, but also can green-light policies at the local level beyond the federal agency's reach. Through her philanthropy DeVos has put support behind some troubling organizations. One such organization is the Family Research Council (FRC). The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the Family Research Council as an anti-LGBTQ extremist group and its Washington office was created due in large part to the support of the DeVos family. The FRC champions conversion therapy, a practice that attempts to change a person's sexual orientation through, often psychologically damaging, practices veiled as "therapy". Suffice to say, advocacy for such policies not only infringes on personal liberties but directly puts students and families in incredibly unsafe and dangerous positions. When the Secretary of Education has a history of supporting such policies, it sends the message to local agencies that harmful and discriminatory policies are acceptable.

In philanthropy, particularly the large-scale philanthropy that DeVos and her family engage in, it would be overly simplistic to assume that DeVos herself supports specific FRC policies such as conversion therapy. However, as the soon-to-be head of a department that is meant to protect students right to learn in a safe environment, the fact that she has not spoken out against the harmful policies supported by the FRC is deeply concerning. Silence on an issue, particularly in a place of power that DeVos has held and will continue to hold, can lead to real damage for schools, communities, students and families.

However, to say that she has merely been "silent" would be equally untrue. DeVos and her husband championed and provided financial support to amend the Michigan constitution to ban same-sex marriage. By championing the two-tiered system that the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional, DeVos is making the statement that some families are less deserving than others. Such deeply discriminatory beliefs cannot be held by someone charged with overseeing the education of our nations children.

The political implication of this particular philanthropy presents a clear lack of trust in the moral fiber of individuals and families to make the correct, supportive and loving decision about themselves or their own children. This distrust runs contrary to the rhetoric around school choice, which often rest on the neo-liberal (somewhat libertarian) ideal that parents can and should be able to act autonomously to gather all information needed to make a decision about where to send their child to school.

If DeVos merely lacked experience or leadership skills, we would face the potential of poorly executed policy or failed coalition building. The outcomes would likely mirror what has been seen in Michigan where an under regulated school choice mechanism resulted in a two-tiered system that failed to serve the majority of students. This alone is deeply concerning for the fate of our nation's schools. However, arguably more concerning, is the future of having someone at the helm of our education system who lacks the ethical grounding to protect the needs of students and lacks a track record of advocating for safe and welcoming communities. DeVos's actions (and inactions) have highlighted this threat and in turn, leave one question unanswered: can DeVos effectively and fairly lead a department meant to uphold civil rights for all students and families? Hopefully the answer will surprise us. Regardless as we wait to see, it will remain increasingly important for communities, educators and peers to build safe and responsive spaces for young people in the months and years to come.