Betsy DeVos, whose nomination for secretary of education will be reviewed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on Tuesday, has never taught in a classroom. She’s never worked in a school administration, nor in a state education system, nor has she studied pedagogy. She’s never been to public school, and neither have her children. She has no record on higher education, except as an investor in the student-loan industry, which the Department of Education oversees. As Massachusetts Senator (and HELP Committee member) Elizabeth Warren wrote recently, there is “no precedent” for an education secretary with DeVos’s lack of experience in public education.
What DeVos lacks in expertise she’s made up in money. The daughter of auto-parts magnate Edgar Prince, DeVos married Amway heir Dick DeVos, and together the DeVoses have given some $200 million to conservative organizations and politicians—including nearly $1 million to 21 of the senators who will vote on her nomination—with particular devotion to the cause of privatizing public education. DeVos is not coy about the power of her pockets: She wrote in 1997 that she had decided “to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point…. We do expect some things in return.”
DeVos has been deeply involved in education—as a lobbyist and philanthropist—since the early 1990s, particularly in her home state, Michigan, where she’s pushed to expand charter schools and to implement a voucher system that would funnel public dollars to private schools. DeVos adheres to the idea that free-market competition between schools will produce the best outcome for students. “The more of a ‘marketplace’ we have for education, the more, I think, the better,” she said in a 2015 interview. In another speech that year, she referred to public education as a “dead end,” and said that “government really sucks.”
But DeVos is not simply a free-market ideologue: She has also argued for education reform as a way to advance a Christian worldview. Like her father, DeVos has backed a number of right-wing religious organizations. During a convening of wealthy Christians in 2001, DeVos likened debate about public education to a religious battlefield, and described her work to promote school choice as a crusade to “advance God’s Kingdom” and to secure “greater Kingdom gain.” In the year prior to those remarks, the DeVoses spent more than $2 million backing a school-voucher referendum that would have permitted Michigan parents to pay tuition at religious schools with public money. The measure failed decisively—but soon DeVos may have a national platform from which to attack the separation of church and state. (Donald Trump campaigned on a proposal to spend $20 million on a federal voucher program, though there are several obstacles to that plan.)