Looking to the Past to Predict the Future: Betsy DeVos


This past week has been a big week in our country’s history. Given the important events at the national level, it seemed important to EdLIFE that we address the incoming administration’s Secretary of Education nominee, Betsy DeVos.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not afraid of having an opinion, which is why I’ve found myself scratching my head as I try to figure out what I think about DeVos. Relatively unknown in national education circles prior to her nomination, DeVos’ biggest claims to fame are as a Michigan-based education reform advocate and as an active leader and donor in the Republic Party.

It doesn’t take much time on Google to look up my links to the education reform community, so this would seemingly place us in the same camp. However, like any community, the education reform community is not monolithic, and I’ve read enough about DeVos’ advocacy to raise questions about some of the policies that she has supported. Time will tell which issues DeVos and the President-Elect decide to pursue at a national level – and how they decide to pursue them.

Because I know little about DeVos besides what I’ve read – and all of it is slanted in some way or another – I decided to research what DeVos herself has stated. I’d originally wanted to interview her, but she is not accepting interviews until after the Senate confirmation process, whose vote is scheduled for January 31st.

Here’s a sampling of what I’ve found:

Why She Became Involved in Education: All families should be able to choose the right school for their kids.

When [my husband] Dick and I had school-age children ourselves, we visited the Potter’s House Christian School…While we were at the school, we met parents who were doing everything in their power to have their kids in an environment that was safe, where they were learning, and where the atmosphere was just electric with curiosity, with love for one another…We knew we had the resources to send our kids to whatever school was best for them. For these parents, however, paying tuition was a real sacrifice. We started supporting individual students at the school, and that grew into a larger commitment…If we could choose the right school for our kids, it only seemed fair that they could do the same for theirs.” Philanthropy Roundtable; Interview with Betsy DeVos, the Reformer; Spring 2013

On School Choice: She supports it.

“I will be a crusader for parents and students and the equality of education, not for specific systems or specific arrangements of how school is delivered.” Senate Confirmation Hearing, C-SPAN, January 17, 2017

[Choices include] starting with private schools, which is probably the most difficult form to get to politically in people’s minds, charter schools, online schools, virtual schools, blended learning, any combination thereof, and frankly any combination or any kind choice that hasn’t yet been thought of. Education savings accounts, that’s a new one as well.” Tripp Scott Interview; Betsy DeVos of the American Federation for Children; August 6, 2015

On Common Core: She opposes it.

“I am not a supporter [of Common Core]—period. I do support high standards, strong accountability, and local control. When Governors such as John Engler, Mike Huckabee, and Mike Pence were driving the conversation on voluntary high standards driven by local voices, it all made sense. Have organizations that I have been a part of supported Common Core? Of course. But that’s not my position. Sometimes it’s not just students who need to do their homework. However, along the way, it got turned into a federalized boondoggle.” www.betsydevos.com; Q+A; Retrieved: January 2, 2017

On ESSA: She intends to implement it as intended.

“If there is any confusion or questions around the transition, rest assured. It will be a high priority, if confirmed, for me to ensure that the plan is adhered to and that the law is implemented as you all intended.” Senate Confirmation Hearing, C-SPAN, January 17, 2017

On School Accountability: She supports it for traditional and charter public schools (unclear about private schools) and views it as important information for parents.

“The fact is, there are important and fundamental aspects to our education system — like reading and math — and allowing schools to escape responsibility for producing results in these areas is no benefit to schoolchildren. School grades are no panacea, but they are an important step in creating a transparent system that holds schools accountable for students…Transparency and accountability are not easy pills to swallow, especially for those being held accountable. But positive things will happen when schools organize around the singular focus of student learning.” Sun Journal Op-Ed, Joel Klein and Betsy DeVos: A-F grades promote transparency and parental involvement, March 25, 2013

Senator Kaine: “I’m very interested in this. Public charter or private schools, K-12, they should meet the same accountability standards?”

DeVos: Yes. Parents should have the information, first and foremost.” Senate Confirmation Hearing, C-SPAN, January 17, 2017

On Teachers: Poorly performing teachers should be removed, and high-performing teachers should be paid more.

“We don’t pay teachers enough, and we don’t fire teachers enough…Teaching is hard. It takes a lot of skill. Not everyone that tries it can do it well. We need to admit that and act accordingly. We should reward and respect great teachers by paying them more, and we should stop rewarding seniority over effectiveness.” SWSUedu, Betsy DeVos SXSWedu, March 13, 2015

On Traditional Public Schools: The traditional model is outdated.

“The traditional education industry is really good at two things – bucking and criticizing change and protecting grown-up jobs. Tragically, children suffer the consequences. Let’s own up to this reality. Our education system is an antiquated industry, designed more than 200 years ago in Prussia, notably a country that no longer exists. It was brought to America and established to educate the masses in a standardized assembly line manner…[Children] are not products. They are unique individuals with unique characteristics and needs.” American Federation for Children, Policy Summit 2014, June 20, 2014

 On America’s Education Status Internationally: America has fallen behind.

“American education has been losing ground to other countries for at least half a century. The facts here are inarguable…Not only are we falling behind collectively in relationship to other countries, we have far too many children who are straight-up failing, and they are largely concentrated in economically disadvantaged areas, and we have too many children in middle-class, suburban areas that we think are doing well, but that are actually seriously underperforming. The truth is that each and every child deserves the opportunity to fully develop their potential, and collectively our country will not be competitive unless all kids have opportunity.” SWSUedu, Betsy DeVos SXSWedu, March 13, 2015

On Politics and Education: Both parties are culpable when it comes to the state of public education.

“Let me get politically incorrect in discussing the political parties. Let’s start with Republicans. Many Republicans in the suburbs like the idea of education choice as a concept, right up until it means that poor kids from the inner cities might invade their schools. This is when you’ll hear the sentiment, ‘Well, it’s not really a great idea to have poor, minority kids coming to our good, suburban schools,’ though they’ll never actually say those words aloud…Now, let’s talk about Democrats. Many Democrats love the idea of providing equal opportunity, right up until the moment when the teachers’ union leaders say, ‘No.’ When that happens, they salute and fall back into formation. I’ve had many conversations with Democrat politicians who know in their heart of hearts that education choice is the right thing, but who admit in private that they cannot afford to get crossed up with the teachers unions and the party bosses.” SWSUedu, Betsy DeVos SXSWedu, March 13, 2015

On Her Family’s Contributions to Anti-LGBT Organizations: The contributions do not reflect her values.

“First of all, let me say that I fully embrace equality, and I believe in the innate value of every single human being, and that all students, no matter their age, should be able to attend a school and feel safe and be free of discrimination. Let’s start there. Let me just say that your characterization of contributions [as supporting conversion therapy for gay individuals], I don’t think it accurately reflects those of my family. I would hope you wouldn’t include other family members beyond my core family.” Senate Confirmation Hearing, C-SPAN, January 17, 2017

On States’ Rights: States should drive policy.

“Let me respond to [Senator Collins’] question about federal versus state and local rule by saying, I absolutely support the fact that [vouchers] are a state rule and state decision with regards to choices and education…Maine has a unique situation with students attending school on islands and in rural areas. It suggests that the right answer for Maine is not the right answer for Indiana or any state. I would not support a federal mandate or any federal role in dictating those.” Senate Confirmation Hearing, C-SPAN, January 17, 2017


A few things are clear from DeVos’ words. She clearly supports school choice. She likely believes in tenure reform and performance-based compensation, and she seems to be against the Common Core. In addition, although she’s active in the Republican Party, she is not afraid to call them – and the Democrats – out on educational issues. Really, when it comes to all of these issues, the devil will be in the details. It seems like she has the votes to be confirmed, so we’ll be watching the new Department of Education closely.

(c) Monica Candal Rahim

Monica Candal Rahim is a former teacher who has worked in education policy and advocacy. She now works as a consultant who is eager to support those on the front lines of education – our teachers.


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