Betsy DeVos, Religion and Taxpayer Dollars for Private School Education

Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary has deep religious roots and a strong commitment to private school education. 

President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos after their meeting at Trump International Golf Club in Bedminster Township, N.J., on Nov. 19, 2016
President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos after their meeting at Trump International Golf Club in Bedminster Township, N.J., on Nov. 19, 2016 Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President-elect Donald Trump announced Wednesday that billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos was his choice for education secretary.

DeVos, a conservative activist, has no professional experience in schools, and she is known politically for pushing private school voucher programs—which, as the Washington Post describes, is a controversial position within public school circles. DeVos has spent millions of dollars pushing to expand voucher programs that give families taxpayer dollars to pay for private and religious schools.

DeVos, 58, has deep ties to the Christian Reform community in Michigan and is herself a product of religious schools. She graduated from Calvin College, a Christian Reform school named after Protestant reformer John Calvin, and as the Post reports, the DeVos name is well-known within the church.

She founded and serves as chairman of the American Federation of Children and its associated political arm, and she has used that platform to support candidates who endorse vouchers and charter schools. She also uses that platform to attack candidates who do not support vouchers and charter schools.

Trump himself has proposed putting $20 billion toward federal spending for a grant program that would allow states to expand vouchers and charter schools.

According to the Post, recent studies have shown that students who receive vouchers have seen their math and reading scores decline after they transfer from public to private school, while other studies show that voucher recipients are more likely to enroll in and complete college.

According to the Post, DeVos’ policy on school vouchers is likely motivated by her Christian faith, and Rabbi Jack Moline said that raises church-state concerns.

“Americans are always free to send their children to private schools and religious schools, but raiding the public treasury to subsidize private businesses and religious organizations runs against the public trust and the Constitution,” Moline said. “It suggests that he has little regard for our nation’s public schools or the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.”

Julie Ingersoll, professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida, told the Post that DeVos’ nomination is likely the handiwork of Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who expanded vouchers as governor of Indiana.

“It’s been a long-standing goal of the religious right to replace public education with Christian education,” Ingersoll said. “The long-term strategy of how to change culture is through education.”

DeVos tweeted Wednesday that she is not a fan of Common Core and linked to a Q&A on her website that further explains her stance.

“I am not a supporter—period,” DeVos wrote. “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.”

The Post reports that many Republicans on Capitol Hill are hoping that DeVos will shrink the role the federal government has in public schools and leave more decisions up to the states and individual districts.

DeVos did not initially support Trump’s presidential candidacy, and her family foundation donated between $10,000 and $25,000 to the Clinton Foundation. In March, she told the Washington Examiner that Trump was an “interloper” who “does not represent the Republican Party.”

That tune changed Wednesday after her nomination was announced.

“I am honored to work with the President-elect on his vision to make American education great again. The status quo in ed is not acceptable,” DeVos tweeted. “Together, we can work to make transformational change to ensure every student has the opportunity to fulfill his or her highest potential.”

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