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Billionaire Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump's pick to lead the Department of Education, has been described as a "true enemy" of public schools. (Photo: Getty)

Corporate Education Nominee DeVos Faces Pushback from Dem Senators

'Betsy DeVos and her family have a long record of pushing policies that I believe have seriously undermined public education in Michigan and failed our children'

Deirdre Fulton

As one U.S. senator denounces Betsy DeVos' record in Michigan, six others are demanding President-elect Donald Trump's pick for Education Secretary untangle the "complicated web of political and not-for-profit organizations" she has spun over her career pushing a corporate education agenda nationwide. 

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) met Thursday with DeVos, a former head of the Michigan Republican Party who has championed conservative education policies in that state and around the country. Her efforts have been largely successful in Michigan, where DeVos has spent two decades advocating for more charter schools and less oversight.

But investigations by the Detroit Free Press and others have found that work to be detrimental to students—an opinion apparently shared by Stabenow.

"Our conversation reaffirmed my strong concerns about her nomination," Stabenow said following Thursday's meeting. "Betsy DeVos and her family have a long record of pushing policies that I believe have seriously undermined public education in Michigan and failed our children. Therefore, I cannot support [her]."

Meanwhile, also on Thursday, Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Al Franken (D-Minn), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.)—all members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee that will consider DeVos' nomination on Wednesday, January 11—sent DeVos a letter seeking answers about her work as a charter school lobbyist.

Specifically, the letter requests DeVos provide the committee with information about her roles with dark money groups such as the American Federation for Children, which the Center for Media and Democracy describes as one of several "major contributors to the right-wing corporate education reform echo chamber," and the Great Lakes Education Project, whose "political action committee does the most prolific and aggressive lobbying for charter schools," according to the Detroit Free Press

The senators write:

Until recently, you were the Chairman of the American Federation for Children (AFC), a 501(c)(4) organization. You have simultaneously served as Chairman of AFC's partner organizations, the American Federation for Children Growth Fund 501(c)(3) organization—previously the Alliance for School Choice—and the American Federation for Children Action Fund 527 political action committee. These organizations have been linked to the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Wisconsin Club for Growth, the Wisconsin affiliate of the national Club for Growth which was run for a period by a long-time associate of the Koch brothers. You were also instrumental in the establishment of the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), which has a similar structure to the AFC organizations. While GLEP itself is a 527 political action committee, it is financially supported by the Great Lakes Education Foundation 501(c)(3) and assisted in its advocacy by the Great Lakes Education Fund 501(c)(4) organization.

Understanding your leadership roles in this complicated web of political and not-for-profit organizations is necessary for us to be able to evaluate any conflicts of interest you may bring to the position, and whether you should recuse yourself from particular matters that may come before you as secretary. Because some of your work has not been "publicly reported for everyone to see" it is particularly important that you are forthcoming about the work of the American Federation for Children, the Great Lakes Education Fund, and any other 501(c)(4) organizations with which you have a relation. 

In a blog post Thursday, public education historian and advocate Diane Ravitch—who opposes DeVos' nomination—also came up with a list of questions for the billionaire nominee:

  1. Do you intend to pay the state of Ohio the $5.2 million that you owe for campaign finance violations?
  2. Are you aware of the widespread fraud and profiteering in the charter industry in Michigan?
  3. If you are secretary of Education, what would you do to reduce fraud, waste and abuse in the charter industry?
  4. Why do you support cybercharters when research consistently shows that they deliver a substandard education, with low tests scores, high attrition, and low graduation rates?
  5. Why do you oppose regulation and oversight of charter schools?
  6. Do you believe that students who use public funds to go to religious schools should be subject to the same standards and tests as students in public schools?
  7. Do you think that Thomas Jefferson was wrong when he recommended a separation of church and state?
  8. Should religious schools that accept public funding be required to hire certified teachers? If not, why not?
  9. Do you think that Detroit is a good model for the rest of the nation? It has more children in charter schools than public schools, and charter schools do not get better performance than public schools.
  10. Do you think that Milwaukee is a good model for the rest of the nation? It has vouchers, charter schools, and traditional public schools, yet is one of the lowest performing urban districts, only slightly ahead of Detroit, which is at the very bottom on [National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP].
  11. Do you know what NAEP is?
  12. What programs of the U.S. Department of Education are you planning to change?
  13. What is your knowledge of federal funding for higher education? How would you change it?
  14. What do you know about federal funding of students with special needs? How would you change it?
  15. About 85 percent of American students attend traditional public schools. Other than urging them to go to nonpublic schools, what ideas do you have to improve their schools?

Still, DeVos' confirmation remains likely in the GOP-dominated Congress. And as several news outlets have reported, wealthy DeVos and her family have donated generously to many lawmakers over the years, including several sitting on the committee overseeing next week's confirmation hearing.

"She's acknowledged that her family gives, and gives a lot, because it's aiming to buy influence," Public Citizen president Robert Weissman told the Washington Post on Friday. "Against that backdrop, how are the senators supposed to evaluate her nomination in an unbiased way? They can't."

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