When Journalists Investigated Trump's Nominee For Education Secretary, They Found Scores Of Unanswered Questions

››› ››› JULIE ALDERMAN & PAM VOGEL

Journalists have spent months investigating the complicated connections of education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, attempting to untangle her financial dealings and ideological stances on public education. In light of DeVos’ January 17 Senate committee confirmation hearing, Media Matters highlights some of the findings from quality investigative reporting on the billionaire Republican mega-donor. 

Billionaire Betsy DeVos Set To Face Questions At Senate Confirmation Hearing

GOP Mega-Donor And Privatization Activist Betsy DeVos “Could Face Unusually Stiff Resistance” In January 17 Confirmation Hearing For Education Secretary. Republican megadonor and education privatization activist Betsy DeVos is appearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee on January 17 to start a confirmation hearing on her nomination as secretary of education. As The New York Times noted, DeVos’ complicated financial dealings and track record on public education -- along with her still-underway ethics review -- could lead to tougher questions and more opposition than most recent nominees for the position have faced:

Nominees for secretary of education have typically breezed through confirmation by the Senate with bipartisan approval.

But Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald J. Trump’s choice for the post, is no typical nominee. She is a billionaire with a complex web of financial investments, including in companies that stand to win or lose from the department she would oversee. She has been an aggressive force in politics for years, as a prominent Republican donor and as a supporter of steering public dollars to private schools.

Her wealth and her politics seem likely to make her confirmation hearing unusually contentious, and possibly drawn out. [The New York Times, 1/12/17]

DeVos Was Instrumental In Pushing Disastrous Detroit Education Policies

Politico: “Thanks To The DeVoses, Michigan’s Charter Schools Enjoy A Virtually Unregulated Existence.” In a lengthy report for Politico Magazine, reporter Zack Stanton documented the unprecedented political spending DeVos spearheaded in Michigan to push extreme policies against charter school transparency and labor unions. As the report summarized:

Thanks to the DeVoses, Michigan’s charter schools enjoy a virtually unregulated existence. Thanks to them, too, the center of the American automotive industry and birthplace of the modern labor movement is now a right-to-work state. They’ve funded campaigns to elect state legislators, established advocacy organizations to lobby them, buttressed their allies and primaried those they disagree with, spending at least $100 million on political campaigns and causes over the past 20 years.

[...]

Buoyed by the success in Michigan, the DeVoses have exported a scaled-down version of that template into other states, funding an archipelago of local political action committees and advocacy organizations to ease the proliferation of charter schools in Indiana, New Jersey, Ohio, Iowa, Virginia and Louisiana, among others. At the same time, DeVos-backed PACs have transformed the nature of American political campaigns. By showing the success of independent PACs that answered to a few deep-pocketed donors rather than a broad number of stakeholders associated with a union or chamber of commerce, for instance, the DeVoses precipitated the monsoon of independent expenditures that has rained down upon politicians for the past decade. In the process, they’ve reshaped political campaigns as well as the policies that result from them.

Ten years after she watched her husband give a concession speech, Betsy DeVos was unveiled as President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education. Across the country, public-school advocates and teachers’ unions expressed almost unanimous horror: One of the most effective advocates for breaking down the rules and protections for public schools and teachers would soon be the nation’s most powerful education policymaker. [Politico Magazine, 1/15/17]

NY Times: DeVos “Bent Detroit To Her Will On Charter Schools,” Creating An Unregulated Market “Even Charter School Supporters Now Criticize.” A December 12 investigative piece by The New York Times’ Kate Zernike detailed DeVos’ push for unregulated charter school growth in Detroit public schools, and subsequent opposition to legislation that would tighten accountability regulations for the state’s highly privatized charter industry. The charter school sector in Michigan, supported by DeVos, is now criticized by “even charter school supporters” for its lack of transparency:

Ms. DeVos and her husband had lobbied hard for the state law that established charter schools in 1994. It allowed an unusually large number of organizations to start charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run. But it created little oversight.

Even charter school supporters now criticize Detroit as one of the most unregulated markets in the country. About 80 percent of the state’s charters are operated for profit, far higher than anywhere else.

In 2011, the DeVoses and the Great Lakes project lobbied successfully to lift a cap on the number of charter schools, fighting off a provision that would have kept failing schools from expanding.

In Detroit, which now has a greater proportion of charters than any city but New Orleans, one result was a glut of schools as more charters opened but the city’s population continued to decline. Yet while there are too many seats in schools downtown, there are not enough in the poorest, most remote neighborhoods, where most students live. [The New York Times, 12/12/16]

NY Times: “It Is Hard To Find Anyone More Passionate About The Idea Of Steering Public Dollars Away From Traditional Public Schools Than Betsy DeVos.” In a November 23 report, Zernike traced DeVos’ philanthropic record -- nationally and in Michigan, in particular -- and concluded that her “donations and advocacy” focused “almost entirely on establishing newer, more entrepreneurial models to compete with traditional schools for students and money,” rather than on supporting existing public schools. Zernike pointed to DeVos’ behind-the-scenes efforts to impose low-accountability charter school options in Michigan as evidence:

Michigan is one of the nation’s biggest school choice laboratories, especially with charter schools. The Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids school districts have among the nation’s 10 largest shares of students in charters, and the state sends $1 billion in education funding to charters annually. Of those schools, 80 percent are run by for-profit organizations, a far higher share than anywhere else in the nation.

The DeVoses, the most prominent name in state Republican politics, have been the biggest financial and political backers of the effort.

But if Michigan is a center of school choice, it is also among the worst places to argue that choice has made schools better. As the state embraced and then expanded charters over the past two decades, its rank has fallen on national reading and math tests. Most charter schools perform below the state average.

And a federal review in 2015 found “an unreasonably high” percentage of charter schools on the list of the state’s lowest-performing schools. The number of charter schools on that list had doubled since 2010, after the passage of a law a group financed by Ms. DeVos pushed to expand the schools. The group blocked a provision in that law that would have prevented failing schools from expanding or replicating. [The New York Times, 11/23/16]

DeVos’ Financial Entanglements Raise Significant Ethics Concerns

Wash. Post: DeVos’ Ethics Review Is Still Not Complete As Of The January 17 Hearing. Washington Post reporter Emma Brown reported on the morning of January 17 that DeVos’ ethics review “was still not complete as of Jan. 16, according to Democratic and Republican Senate aides.” Brown’s report highlighted a new request from a leading Democrat on the HELP Committee, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), asking that DeVos voluntarily provide the committee with her tax returns from the previous three years. A second article from the Post just before the hearing began reported that the ethics review has still not been completed. [The Washington Post, 1/17/17, 1/17/17]

Wash. Post: DeVos “Omitted A $125,000 Political Donation” From Required Nominee Ethics Forms. According to an earlier report from Brown, DeVos “omitted a $125,000 political donation from disclosures she submitted to a Senate committee in advance of her confirmation hearing,” adding that the donation was to “a Michigan committee that successfully opposed a ballot initiative that would have enshrined collective-bargaining rights in the state constitution.” From the January 13 Washington Post report:

President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team acknowledged Friday that Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, omitted a $125,000 political donation from disclosures she submitted to a Senate committee in advance of her confirmation hearing, which is scheduled for Tuesday.

“We appreciate this being called to our attention and we will be updating our committee submission,” a transition team spokeswoman said Friday.

The missing donation — to a Michigan committee that successfully opposed a ballot initiative that would have enshrined collective-bargaining rights in the state constitution — represents a small fraction of the more than $5 million in donations that DeVos did disclose last week to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP). [The Washington Post, 1/13/17]

NY Times: DeVos “Plays Hardball With Her Wealth.” A January 9 report from The New York Times examined DeVos’ and her family members’ “aggressive” political spending in the name of “ideological causes,” which it found was akin to the more well-known spending of the billionaire Koch brothers. The Times report included examples of the DeVos family’s coordinated political spending to oppose a variety of labor movement policies and candidates in Michigan and nationally. From the Times:

In announcing his intention to nominate Ms. DeVos, Mr. Trump described her as “a brilliant and passionate education advocate.” Even critics characterized her as a dedicated, if misguided, activist for school reform. But that description understates both the breadth of Ms. DeVos’s political interests and the influence she wields as part of her powerful family. More than anyone else who has joined the incoming Trump administration, she represents the combination of wealth, free-market ideology and political hardball associated with a better-known family of billionaires: Charles and David Koch.

[...]

Indeed, the DeVoses’ education activism, which favors alternatives to traditional public schools, appears to derive from the same free-market views that inform their suspicion of government. And perhaps more than other right-wing billionaires, the DeVoses couple their seeding of ideological causes with an aggressive brand of political spending. Half a dozen or more extended family members frequently coordinate contributions to maximize their impact.

In the 2016 cycle alone, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the family spent roughly $14 million on political contributions to state and national candidates, parties, PACs and super PACs. [The New York Times, 1/9/17]

Wash. Post: DeVos And Her Family Donated To Many Of The Senators “Overseeing Her Confirmation Hearing.” In a January 7 story, Brown pointed out that DeVos and her family “have funded the campaigns of many of the senators now tasked with voting on her nomination.” That includes giving “more than $250,000 to five members of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP),” which is  “overseeing her confirmation hearing.” From the January 7 report:

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, is not just a prospective Cabinet member seeking confirmation from the U.S. Senate.

She is also a billionaire Republican donor whose family’s donations have funded the campaigns of many of the senators now tasked with voting on her nomination, including members of the committee overseeing her confirmation hearing, scheduled for Wednesday.

During the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, DeVos and her relatives gave at least $818,000 to 20 current Republican senators, including more than $250,000 to five members of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), according to a Washington Post analysis of Federal Election Commission records.

DeVos personally made a relatively small percentage of those donations: at least $31,400 to committee members and $96,000 to all senators. But her giving appears to have been coordinated with her family: In most cases, senators received donations from more than a half-dozen DeVos family members, including her husband, his parents and his siblings, on the same day. [The Washington Post, 1/7/17]

WSJ: DeVos Is “An Indirect Investor” In “A Startup Whose Fortunes Hinges In Part” On Education Department Policy. The Wall Street Journal explained in a December 5 report that DeVos “is an indirect investor in online-lending company Social Finance Inc., a startup whose fortunes hinge in part on policies crafted by the department Ms. DeVos would run” as secretary of education. The report pointed out that Education Department “policy changes can have a big impact on the private-lending business,” which is the industry of the startup. From the December 5 Wall Street Journal report:

Betsy DeVos, tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to run the U.S. Department of Education, is an indirect investor in online-lending company Social Finance Inc., a startup whose fortunes hinge in part on policies crafted by the department Ms. DeVos would run.

[...]

Policy changes can have a big impact on the private-lending business. For example, a 2010 change cut out private lenders from much of the market, making the Education Department an even bigger force in student loans. During her presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton proposed that the government refinance student debt at lower interest rates. Such a move would have hurt SoFi’s business. [The Wall Street Journal, 12/5/16]

Politico: DeVos’ Group Owes Ohio “A Record Fine” Of “More Than $5.3 Million For Election Law Violations.” Politico reported that a group headed by DeVos “owes the state of Ohio more than $5.3 million for election law violations.” The report noted that DeVos’ group “broke Ohio election law by funneling $870,000 in contributions through its nationwide PAC to its Ohio affiliate” and that the fines are “the largest ever levied by the state panel.” From the November 29 report:

A school-choice advocacy group headed by billionaire Betsy DeVos owes the state of Ohio more than $5.3 million for election law violations — a record fine that is now nearly a decade past due.

[...]

The unpaid fine dates back to 2008, when All Children Matter — a group that lobbied for school-choice legislation and was run by DeVos — broke Ohio election law by funneling $870,000 in contributions through its nationwide PAC to its Ohio affiliate, according to the Ohio Elections Commission.

The state commission told POLITICO that DeVos' group initially asked Ohio if this sort of spending was permissible. When the state said no, DeVos' group did it anyway.

[...]

The elections commission slapped the two PACs with $2.6 million in fines — the largest ever levied by the state panel. Ohio's attorney general sought to collect on the fines and the groups appealed. After a lengthy legal battle, a judge ruled in the state's favor in 2013, saying All Children Matter, along with its affiliated PACs, owed the elections commission both the original fines and a late fee of $25 a day.

That late fee — also unpaid — now exceeds $91,000. [Politico, 11/29/16]

DeVos’ Limited Record Hints At Civil Rights And Discrimination Issues

Rewire: DeVos’ Push To Move Public Funds To Private Schools “Would Make A Bad Situation Even Worse” For Disabled Students. In a January 11 column, Rewire contributor Robyn Powell explained that the policies DeVos supports would move public funds to private schools, making “a bad situation even worse” for disabled students. Powell added that the private schools DeVos’ proposals would bolster “have absolutely no legal duty to support students with disabilities.” From the January 11 Rewire column:

Unfortunately, Trump’s selection to the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, has no governmental experience with public schools. Rather, she is a staunch supporter of “school choice,” which ostensibly allows families to choose which type of school (in other words, public or private) their child attends and for federal funding to support private schools. This is something public school advocates fear. They argue that redirecting dollars from public to private schools weakens public education and gives taxpayer support to schools that don’t have the same obligation to serve all students, including those with disabilities. Special education is already extremely underfunded: Although IDEA calls for 40 percent of special education be funded by the federal government, that has never happened. In 2016, for example, the federal government covered only 16 percent of special education costs. Hence, cutting more public school funding would make a bad situation even worse.

Moreover, students with disabilities aren’t truly given school choice: No choice exists if private schools can legally refuse to provide appropriate and necessary services and supports, which is often the case. In fact, generally, protections under federal laws such as the IDEA, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Rehabilitation Act, do not extend to students with disabilities who attend private schools. In other words, private schools who do not receive federal funding have absolutely no legal duty to support students with disabilities. [Rewire, 1/11/17]

Politico: DeVos’ Donations “Spark Questions About Her Stance On Campus Sexual Assault.” In a January 9 report, Politico highlighted past donations DeVos and her husband made to an organization known for “defending the rights of those accused of campus sexual assault or harassment.” Though Politico noted that the donations were small compared to the total of DeVos’ vast philanthropic connections, it said they could offer a hint to her stance as the incoming Trump administration is poised to roll back Title IX protections on college campuses. [Politico, 1/9/17; Inside Higher Ed, 11/28/16, 11/10/16]

Politico: “The DeVos Family Has A Long History Of Supporting Anti-Gay Causes.” In November, Politico reporters Benjamin Wermund and Kimberly Hefling mapped out the extensive donations members of the billionaire DeVos family have given to anti-LGBTQ causes, including harmful “conversion therapy” groups. Though the report noted that many of the donations in question came from other DeVos family members, it also highlighted specific giving from Betsy DeVos and her husband to at least one anti-LGBTQ group:

DeVos and her husband have given hundreds of thousands to Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group whose founder called the battle against LGBT rights a "second civil war," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group has also pushed so-called “conversion therapy” — discredited practices aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation — according to the Human Rights Campaign.

DeVos’ ties to a group that pushes “conversion therapy” is “most alarming,” and DeVos needs to clarify her stance on the practice, [Human Rights Campaign president Chad] Griffin said. [Politico, 11/25/16]

DeVos’ Views On Public Education Dismiss Separation Between Church And State

Politico: DeVos “Once Compared Her Work In Education Reform To A Biblical Battleground Where She Wants To ‘Advance God’s Kingdom.’” In early December, Politico’s Wermund uncovered remarks DeVos delivered in 2001 to “The Gathering,” a religious philanthropy group, in which she characterized her stance on education privatization policies as religiously motivated. From the December 2 report:

The billionaire philanthropist whom Donald Trump has tapped to lead the Education Department once compared her work in education reform to a biblical battleground where she wants to "advance God's Kingdom."

Trump’s pick, Betsy DeVos, a national leader of the school choice movement, has pursued that work in large part by spending millions to promote the use of taxpayer dollars on private and religious schools.

Her comments came during a 2001 meeting of “The Gathering,” an annual conference of some of the country’s wealthiest Christians. DeVos and her husband, Dick, were interviewed a year after voters rejected a Michigan ballot initiative to change the state’s constitution to allow public money to be spent on private and religious schools, which the DeVoses had backed.

In the interview, an audio recording, which was obtained by POLITICO, the couple is candid about how their Christian faith drives their efforts to reform American education.

School choice, they say, leads to “greater Kingdom gain.” The two also lament that public schools have “displaced” the Church as the center of communities, and they cite school choice as a way to reverse that troubling trend. [Politico, 12/2/16]

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