The Real Betsy DeVos: Busting the Myths Behind Trump’s Secretary of Education Pick
This past week, President-elect Donald J. Trump announced his nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education−Republican Betsy DeVos from Michigan, a billionaire, businesswoman, philanthropist, and school choice activist.
Because school choice is a controversial topic among educators, the selection of DeVos as Secretary of Education has also been controversial. As a result, social media networks have been riddled with articles, factoids, and memes—some factual, some not so factual—disputing her qualifications.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen falsified information lumped in with the truth this election season.
BuzzFeed News recently examined fake news trends on Facebook, discovering that “in the final three months of the U.S. presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets.”
Social media’s fake news problem has also generated analysis by The New York Times, examining how a false Tweet made its way to Reddit and Facebook, and Business Insider, assessing the potential impact of fake news on the 2016 presidential election. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that unsubstantiated rumors have attached themselves to DeVos, too.
So what’s the real story? Who’s the real Betsy DeVos?
To cut through the swirl of misinformation surrounding DeVos’s appointment, here’s a cheat sheet for understanding DeVos and her stances on education policy issues.
DeVos and her family are major Republican donors: TRUE.
The Detroit News writes that “the DeVos family…are the most prolific donors to the Michigan Republican Party, GOP officeholders and candidates.” Referring to DeVos and her husband, Dick, Forbes notes that “the couple donated at least $2.8 million this cycle—again only to conservatives.”
Dubbing Betsy DeVos a member of the “donor class,” The New Yorker chronicles the long history of the DeVos family’s financial support of the Republican Party, including Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign. Betsy DeVos, however, did not donate to Trump’s campaign (see “Debunking the myths” below).
DeVos has long been an advocate for school vouchers and school choice: TRUE.
As reported by The New Yorker, DeVos spent $2 million “on a failed school-vouchers referendum in 2000, which would have allowed Michigan residents to use public funds to pay for tuition at religious schools.” She and Dick then “formed a political action committee to support pro-voucher candidates nationally,” education news source Chalkbeat writes.
According to The Detroit News, “The DeVoses [Betsy and her husband, Dick] founded their own charter high school, the West Michigan Aviation Academy, located on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids.” Betsy DeVos told Philanthropy magazine that the school was “my idea for [Dick]” and credits him with establishing it, as does Chalkbeat.
Chalkbeat further explains that “when Michigan lawmakers this year  were considering a measure that would have added oversight for charter schools in Detroit, members of the DeVos family poured $1.45 million into legislators’ campaign coffers—an average of $25,000 a day for seven weeks. Oversight was not included in the final legislation.”
Betsy DeVos also chairs the American Federation for Children, “a group that promotes charter school education,” writes CNN, and she “served on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a group…which promoted both school choice and the Common Core education standards.”
The New York Times notes that, in 2001, DeVos “established the Great Lakes Education Project, which became an ardent proponent of charter school expansion, and has donated generously to candidates who have supported it.”
DeVos’s children did not attend public school: TRUE.
What’s not true
DeVos donated $9.5 million to Trump’s campaign: FALSE.
Contrary to the popularly circulated meme, DeVos did not support Trump’s campaign. In an interview with the Washington Examiner in March, DeVos discussed her decision “to embrace and publicly support Sen. [Marco] Rubio” and declared, “I don’t think Donald Trump represents the Republican Party.”
DeVos supports Common Core State Standards: FALSE.
DeVos refuted this belief in a Q&A on her personal website. “I am not a supporter—period,” she wrote. “Have organizations that I have been a part of supported Common Core? Of course. But that’s not my position.”
DeVos favors intelligent design in science curricula: LIKELY FALSE.
During his failed campaign for Michigan governor in 2006, Dick DeVos told The Associated Press, “I would like to see the ideas of intelligent design that many scientists are now suggesting is a very viable alternative theory.” He added, “That theory and others that would be considered credible would expose our students to more ideas, not less.”
The Huffington Post reports that the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation donated to the Thomas More Law Center, which defended a school trying to teach intelligent design in the 2005 court case Kitzmiller v. Dover.
But, as the Post also points out, Betsy DeVos “has given no indication that she’d like to use her position in the Trump administration to promote intelligent design in schools.”
Who are DeVos’s prominent supporters?
- Jeb Bush, via Facebook: “Betsy DeVos is an outstanding pick for Secretary of Education….I cannot think of [a] more effective and passionate change agent to press for a new education vision, one in which students, rather than adults and bureaucracies, become the priority in our nation’s classrooms.”
- Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., via Twitter: “Betsy DeVos is an excellent choice….Betsy has worked for years to improve educational opportunities for all children.”
And prominent critics?
- National Education Association, “the nation’s largest teachers’ union,” according to The New York Times: “Her 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.”
- Michigan Democratic Party: “Donald Trump could not have made a more dangerous and ill-advised pick for his Secretary of Education than billionaire charter school advocate and anti-public education activist Betsy DeVos.”
How does she compare to past secretaries of education?
DeVos has been called unqualified, but others argue she is just as qualified as many previous secretaries of education.
So, how does she compare to other secretaries of education, such as recently resigned education secretary Arne Duncan? Both Duncan and DeVos were educated at private colleges (DeVos at Michigan’s Calvin College and Duncan at Harvard). They both educated their children, at least in part, at private schools. And they both had unconventional routes to the office of Secretary of Education.
Philanthropy magazine, in spring 2013, offered a succinct overview of DeVos’s career: “For more than 30 years, Mrs. DeVos has led a variety of campaigns, party organizations, and political action committees, including six years as chairman of the Michigan Republican Party…Betsy serves as chairman of the Windquest Group, a privately held, multi-company operating group that invests in technology, manufacturing, and clean energy. She founded the firm with her husband in 1989.”
The magazine also identifies DeVos as “a member of several national and local boards, including the DeVos Institute for Arts Management at the Kennedy Center, Mars Hill Bible Church, Kids Hope U.S.A, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education.”
Meanwhile, Arne Duncan, as reported by Harvard Ed. Magazine in 2009, “ran the Ariel Education Initiative, a program that mentored children at one of the city’s worst-performing elementary schools” and later reopened the program as a charter school. After a brief stint as deputy chief of staff to the Chicago Public Schools CEO, Duncan stepped into the role himself. From that position, he was appointed Secretary of Education.
Prior to Duncan, Margaret Spellings served as Secretary of Education under George W. Bush. She attended public high school and a state university. As detailed in her biography as the president of the University of North Carolina, Spellings was a senior advisor to Bush during his tenure as Texas governor and worked for the Texas Association of School Boards. She then held the role of Chief Domestic Policy Advisor to President Bush directly prior to her appointment as Secretary.
The current U.S. Secretary of Education, John B. King, Jr., as described in his U.S. Department of Education biography, received his bachelor’s degree at Harvard and holds master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia University’s Teachers College. Before becoming Secretary, King was the principal senior advisor in the Department of Education.
A Truman Scholar and a recipient of the James Madison Memorial Fellowship for teaching, King had previously served as a high school social studies teacher, as a co-founder and co-director of Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, as the managing director of a charter management group, and as the commissioner of education in New York.
Clearly a variety of paths can lead to the office of Secretary. DeVos’s meteoric rise from local education to the national stage isn’t unprecedented, nor is her lack of teaching experience. As a matter of fact, according to Education Week, only four of the eleven Secretaries of Education had K-12 teaching experience.
Experience aside, only time will tell what effect DeVos will have on U.S. education. But one thing we do know, is that by selecting Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education, President-elect Donald Trump has signaled his continued interest in his campaign promise to support school choice.
“This pick really shows, you know, school choice issues will be the core of Trump’s education agenda,” NPR’s Eric Westervelt told All Things Considered.
Previously an academic adviser at her alma mater, Texas A&M University, Adelia has contributed her editorial skills to The Eckleburg Project, Redivider, and Texas A&M University Press. She recently moved from Texas to Boston to pursue a master's degree in publishing & writing at Emerson College. She devotes her free time to reading fantasy novels and spoiling cats.