The Agenda and Determination of Betsy DeVos

The New York Times reported that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos met with a group of gay and transgender employees to give them notice before President Trump discarded a federal policy that allowed transgender students to use the school bathrooms that corresponded with their gender identities. While she told the group that she opposed the move and is said to have actually done so, she has not gone public with her opposition. Further, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, she criticized the previous transgender-friendly policy as an example of Obama-era overreach.


Despite her personal friendliness and her reluctance to challenge Trump publicly, Ms. DeVos is known to contend aggressively for her causes. In particular, she has long been an advocate for charter schools and school vouchers. While her critics cast her as an enemy of public schools, she argues the case that competition and choice drive educational quality.


Ms. DeVos is not without resources to back up her political advocacy. Born to a father who ran a billion-dollar auto parts company and supported Christian conservative causes, she has been a Michigan Republican Party chairwoman and a major Republican donor. Her husband, Dick DeVos, whose father founded Amway, came from an even wealthier family and ran for governor of Michigan in 2006. Although her wealth is an obvious asset, her influence has been equally attributed to her determination.


Due in large part to Ms. DeVos’ efforts, Detroit has the largest concentration of charter schools in the country. However, these schools have suffered from poor performance, disproportionately low demand, and arguably inadequate oversight while the city’s public schools have continued to decline. Ms. DeVos, who supports schools operated by for-profit companies and opposes holding them to performance standards, argues that parents’ decisions about where to send their children should be the primary evaluation criterion. Accordingly, she successfully fought bipartisan legislation that would have established protocols for permitting new charter schools and closing failing ones.


Secretary DeVos’ broad support for school choice includes the diversion of public funds both for charter schools and for vouchers for private and religious schools. According to the Washington Post, during her tenure as education secretary, she has made numerous promotional visits to a variety of public, charter, and private schools. Among these visits was an appearance with the rapper Pitbull at one of a number of charter schools he has started.


Having barely survived a contentious confirmation process that led to public ridicule of her in the media, Secretary DeVos is aware of the criticisms of her. Unlike the president, she does not publicly challenge her critics, and she even makes jokes about her perceived gaffes. In spite of this, it is said that opposition emboldens her, and she is often underestimated. While she came to Washington without government experience or close ties to the president, her supporters and critics both see her as formidable enough to spread her influence in Michigan to Washington.


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