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- Betsy DeVos is a billionaire. She inherited millions from her father, who founded an auto-parts manufacturing company that was bought by Johnson Controls in the 1990s. Her brother, Richard Prince, founded the military contracting group Blackwater (now called Academi). Her husband inherited millions from his father, who founded Amway.
- Do you think economic and social class influences the way we make decisions? Why? How?
- Do you think Betsy DeVos’ decision-making or policy choices would be different if she came from a working-class background, or was a self-made billionaire?
- What other billionaires have worked to influence education policy in the United States?
- Many wealthy Americans invest in influencing education policy. Some notable examples include:
- This is not a new trend. For nearly a century, the Fords, the Carnegies, and the Rockefellers have invested in education policy.
- DeVos is a Christian conservative. What educational policies are associated with conservative Christianity?
- public funding for schools with religious affiliations
- belief that the separation of church and state is not explicit in the Constitution
- support for creationism or intelligent design to be taught alongside or instead of evolution
- support for no or abstinence-only sexual education
- DeVos has no direct experience in education, meaning she has never worked directly with students, teachers, or administrators. She has, however, been active in lobbying for educational policy for 40 years, and her husband served on the Michigan State Board of Education in the early 1990s.
- Do you think a leader needs direct experience in the field they intend to lead? Why or why not?
- Do you think a leader should possess enough knowledge to be able to engage experts or passionate amateurs in the field they intend to lead? Why or why not?
- Are there any other cabinet-level officials with no direct experience in their appointed or elected field?
- Does Betsy DeVos support the Common Core?
- No. She supports state-level accountability (specifically invoking the work of Vice President Mike Pence, who sealed her confirmation as secretary) but thinks current implementation of the Common Core is a “federalized boondoggle.”
- The policy most affiliated with Betsy DeVos is school choice. What is school choice?
- School choice is an “umbrella term used to describe efforts to privatize education by, among other methods, installing school voucher programs, which divert public funding to private and religious schools.”
- School choice is often affiliated with charter schools (both public and private, both nonprofit and for-profit) and digital learning or online education.
- Why do DeVos and so many other education reform advocates (including the billionaires listed above) support school choice?
- Some, like DeVos, are primarily motivated by their religious beliefs. DeVos has sought “to impact our culture in ways that are not the traditional funding the Christian organization route, but really may have greater kingdom gain in the long run by changing the way we approach things, in this case the system of education in our country.”
- Supporters of school choice often cite the desire for greater parental involvement in determining school curriculum, teaching methodology, and educational environment.
- Supporters say school choice can offer “stronger academic alternatives” to students who live in underserved school districts. These students are disproportionately poor and students of color.
- Supporters say creating a competitive environment among schools will result in stronger educational opportunities overall.
- Supporters say privately managed education is more cost-effective than the traditional public school system.
- Why do so many public school teachers and administrators not support school choice?
- Traditional public schools are not always part of the school choice discussion. In a 2013 interview, “DeVos expressed support for vouchers, private schools, charter schools, homeschooling, and ‘digital learning’ as viable options under educational choice, but did not name public schools.”
- Critics say public funding for private schools, charter schools, homeschooling, and digital learning comes at the (literal) expense of traditional public education. National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen Garcia said that “Betsy DeVos is an actual danger to students—especially our most vulnerable students. She has made a career trying to destroy neighborhood public schools, the very cornerstone of what’s made our nation so strong.”
- Critics say many school choice supporters (including DeVos) oppose labor unions in general and teachers’ unions specifically.
- Critics say many school choice programs are largely unregulated, including DeVos’ big state district, Detroit Public Schools.
- Critics say school choice prioritizes profits (from both private schools and the organizational arm of nonprofit schools) over authentic education.
- Critics say public support for religious education is explicitly unconstitutional, citing the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
- Critics want a fuller discussion of recent school choice programs funded by billionaires such as Gates and Zuckerberg.
- Cosmo says DeVos’ record on education reform in Michigan is seen as poor. How can she have a record if she’s never served in an educational position?
- DeVos is a powerful voice in education policy.
- She started a political action committee (PAC) that “has spent that money essentially buying policy outcomes that have helped Michigan’s charter industry grow while shielding it from accountability,” says the Detroit Free Press.
- She also sits on the boards of many school reform groups, including American Federation for Children (the political arm of the Alliance for School Choice), the Education Freedom Fund, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
- DeVos is a powerful voice in education policy.
- DeVos is a powerful Republican donor. During the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, she and her relatives gave at least $818,000 to 20 current Republican senators, according to the Washington Post.
- Do you think donating to senators whose support she needed for confirmation was a conflict of interest? Why or why not?
- DeVos expects results from her donations. “I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment; we expect a good and honest government. Furthermore, we expect the Republican party to use the money to promote these policies, and yes, to win elections.”
- Do you think all political donors (no matter the amount donated) expect policy changes? If so, do you think wealthy donors are therefore entitled to greater political access? Why or why not?
- Do you think politicians accept donations intending to consider or even enact policies supported by their donors?
- DeVos invests in Neurocore, a controversial business that offers students with ADHD “biofeedback” and “brain performance” services.
- Do you think a Secretary of Education’s investment portfolio should matter to the public?
- Do you think this investment in educational technology is a conflict of interest?
- DeVos may have plagiarized language on her Senate questionnaire.
- Do you think educators should be held accountable for plagiarism? Why? How?
USA Today: What you need to know about Betsy DeVos
Washington Post: Reaction — pro, con and otherwise — to DeVos confirmation