Michigan’s Betsy DeVos has had an outsized influence on politics and education in Wisconsin — especially the expansion of taxpayer-funded vouchers for students to attend private schools.
Now, DeVos is President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. education secretary, and observers expect her to lessen the federal role in public education and vigorously advocate to expand access to voucher and charter schools in other states just like she has done here.
“Betsy DeVos had a lot to do with the expansion of voucher reform across the country and I think that’s because she worked closely with the groundbreaking program early on,” said Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, referring to Milwaukee’s voucher program, the country’s first.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a confirmation hearing for DeVos on Tuesday.
DeVos has, with her husband Dick DeVos, heirs to the Amway fortune, donated hundreds of thousands of dollars toward Republican legislative and statewide candidates since 2003.
And the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children, which she headed as chairwoman and is based in Washington D.C., has spent more than $5 million in Wisconsin in favor of Republican elected officials since 2010, when the GOP gained control of state government, according to data from the liberal-leaning Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks campaign spending.
“She is one of the biggest Republican funders in the whole country and a huge Republican funder in Wisconsin and she explicitly says she expects things in return,” said Wisconsin Democracy Campaign executive director Matt Rothschild, referring to a 1997 column DeVos wrote saying she expects, in return for her financial support of candidates “to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues.”
Rothschild said he expects that if she is confirmed, DeVos will work to divert money away from public schools. Bender, however, said he expects DeVos to give public schools the opportunity to address academic achievement with more flexibility because of less federal involvement. He said she could be a “breath of fresh air” because she is not connected to public schools.
DeVos’ nomination was a jolt to those in the state’s education circles. Some see in her an opportunity for innovation under the U.S. Department of Education while others worry she will favor private schools over public schools.
“A lot of my members are concerned that she’s never been seen as an advocate for public education,” said Dan Rossmiller, lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. “She’s always appeared to be an advocate for private education, and especially in religious education.”
On Tuesday, Gov. Scott Walker — who calls DeVos a friend and for whom DeVos has been a significant campaign donor — wrote a letter to committee chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, and ranking Democratic member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, in support of DeVos.
The group that ultimately became the American Federation for Children began in 1998 with advocacy work in Milwaukee, where the nation’s first voucher system was created in 1990. Bender said DeVos’ early involvement in Wisconsin’s voucher expansion was key in bringing vouchers to other states.
“I think her bigger impact has been the ability to run an organization that took what happened in Wisconsin and introduce it in other states,” said Bender.
AFC has through its millions of dollars in donations worked as the political muscle in the voucher expansion movement in Wisconsin since 2010. As its influence increased, another group’s deteriorated. The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, has been decimated in membership and in influence since Republicans passed Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining legislation.
“(AFC) became the significant player in terms of education-related campaign spending,” said Rossmiller. “It used to be that WEAC was considered the 800-pound gorilla (in influence).”
Scott Jensen, a former Assembly speaker, is the group’s senior adviser and lobbyist.
Rossmiller said he could see DeVos changing the rules for federal money sent to public school districts for students living in poverty to allowing that money to follow the student if they leave a public school and enroll in a private school — a hallmark of Trump’s education agenda.
Trump, according to his campaign materials, plans to immediately put $20 billion in grant funding toward school choice, and to give states the option of allowing money to follow students to whatever kind of school they choose to attend. The grants would favor states that embrace voucher and charter schools.
The Trump administration also plans to “establish the national goal of providing school choice to every one of the 11 million school-aged children living in poverty” — details of which DeVos will likely flesh out if confirmed.
Bender, who attended DeVos’ nomination hearing, said he doesn’t believe there’s an appetite in a Republican-controlled Congress to create a new federal voucher program.
“I don’t think that’s where they are headed,” Bender said. Block grants, instead, are more likely to de-emphasize the role of federal government in education, he said. “I think the biggest winners out of this will be innovative public school districts because they’ll have more freedom.”
A DeVos-headed education department could signal a loosening of federal regulations on Wisconsin schools, said Jon Bales, former superintendent of DeForest School District and current executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators.
“I think largely she will reflect the interest in sort of diminishing the reach of the federal department of education,” said Bales. “I don’t see a lot of far reaching influence and considerable push on school improvement efforts by Department of Education — I think that will shift back to the states and it will be a matter of how states translate that new opportunity and flexibility.”