Higher Education

OPINION: Trump names school-choice advocate DeVos to his cabinet, ushering in a new era in education

Michigan philanthropist favors vouchers, opposes Common Core

President-elect Donald Trump stands with Betsy DeVos after a meeting at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster Township, N.J. on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016.

After weeks of speculation, President-elect Donald J. Trump has selected Betsy DeVos, a philanthropist and school-choice advocate from Michigan, as his secretary of education.

What will this mean for the nation’s schools?

Trump said relatively little about education during the presidential campaign, but school choice was one of the issues he highlighted. In a September speech at a charter school in Cleveland, Trump proposed a $20 billion plan to allow students to attend the school of their choice, including private schools.

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Although he was vague about where the money for the program would come from or how exactly it would work, his selection of DeVos suggests that school choice will be a prominent feature of the Trump administration.

DeVos is a wealthy investor and the former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. She and her husband, Richard, whose father co-founded the Amway Corporation, lead the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, which funds a variety of arts, community, and education organizations.

Most notably, the foundation funded the American Federation for Children, an advocacy group focused on supporting school-choice initiatives and supporting candidates who back school choice.

Betsy DeVos chairs the board of the American Federation for Children. In 2000, the DeVoses bankrolled an unsuccessful ballot initiative in Michigan that would have created a voucher program in that state.

Opposition to the Common Core

DeVos is also on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an organization founded by former Florida Governor (and Trump rival for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination) Jeb Bush. FEE advocates for education reforms, including choice, but it also supports the Common Core State Standards, which Trump has vowed to abolish.

On her website, DeVos says she, too, opposes the Common Core, even though organizations she has been a part of support it. “I am not a supporter — period,” DeVos says. She adds that the initiative “got turned into a federalized boondoggle.”

It is doubtful that she or Trump can do much to get rid of the Common Core. The standards were adopted by states, and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law a year ago, prohibits the U.S. Department of Education from interfering with state decisions about standards.

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State plans for ESSA are due next year, and Republicans in Congress have made clear they do not want the federal government to exert too heavy a hand to restrict state actions.

It’s also unclear whether Trump or DeVos could enact the $20 billion choice plan the candidate proposed. The amount is larger than the largest federal K-12 program, Title I, and it would require a massive infusion of federal funds and a major overhaul of ESSA.

Since Trump is also proposing a huge tax cut and a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, a major increase in education spending does not seem likely. And since it took Congress seven years to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act and pass ESSA, it is unlikely legislators will want to take up the issue now, just a year after agreeing to ESSA.

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One federal choice initiative is likely, however: a revived voucher system for the District of Columbia public schools.

The Republican-controlled Congress created a voucher program in DC in 2004, over the objection of local officials, but legislation to extend funding for it stalled in the Senate this year. With Trump in the White House and DeVos advocating for it, the program is likely to be extended — and perhaps expanded — next year.

What else can educators expect? A lot of rhetoric about choice, and advocacy for state voucher plans. And DeVos will not be the only one cheering those on. Vice President-elect Mike Pence oversaw a major expansion of a voucher program as governor of Indiana.

Robert Rothman is a Washington, D.C.-based education writer.

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Robert Rothman

Robert Rothman is a Washington-based education writer. See Archive