Reactions to President-Elect Donald Trump's announcement of Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education have ranged from high praise, to wary acceptance, to immediate condemnation.
What few have noticed is how much her nomination represents business as usual in national education policy-making.
This is not to normalize extremism in politics and government because DeVos certainly has extreme views on a range of issues, as explained below.
But what DeVos represents in a very great sense is how rich people's grip on the nation's public education system has reached a choking point.
No doubt, education policy led by Trump and DeVos will differ from the previous administration, but what's staying the same is how wealthy private interests will strongly influence policies.
Grasping this essential truth matters a lot in the "nasty" politics of education today, where the real debate is not so much about charters and choice as it is about who is in control.
Playgrounds For The Rich
In her best-selling book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, education historian Diane Ravitch includes a chapter on "The Billionaire Boys Club" that documents how education policy has been the result of the ideological convergence of three wealthy foundations that spend the most money in K-12 education: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.
In another account of the influence of big money on education policy, investigative journalist Joanne Barkan wrote in 2011, "Hundreds of private philanthropies together spend almost $4 billion annually to support or transform K–12 education, most of it directed to schools that serve low-income children (only religious organizations receive more money)." Like Ravitch, Barkan found "the Gates-Broad-Walton triumvirate" to be the most influential in imposing a "market-based" overhauling of public education to include choice and competition coming from charter schools, vouchers, or some combination thereof.
Since those observations, Ravitch updated the roster of the Billionaire Boys Club to include a "girl," Betsy DeVos.
Of The Donor Class
The $4 billion Barkan traced to wealthy foundations might not sound like a lot of money in a $500 billion effort. But as she documents, spending focused on just the right levers can have a big effect.
Betsy DeVos knows where the levers are.
As Jane Mayer writes for The New Yorker, "It would be hard to find a better representative of the 'donor class' than DeVos," and her husband Dick who inherited the Amway fortune. Betsy's father Edgar Prince sold his auto-parts business for $1.35 billion, and her brother Erik founded Blackwater, the private military company that supplied mercenary soldiers to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As a recent article by L.S. Hall for Inside Philanthropy recounts, the DeVoses rank right up there with Charles and David Koch as "among the most influential conservative funders over recent decades, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into an array of think tanks, legal groups, leadership institutes, and more." In their home state of Michigan alone, they have given an estimated $44 million in political donations.
"Like today's most savvy ideological funders on both left and right," Hall continues, "the DeVos family has pulled all the levers of power afforded to the wealthy."
Also, like other philanthropists, their favorite levers are often related to remaking K-12 education.
"DeVos' efforts in recent years exemplify how top school donors have combined philanthropic and political giving to press their agenda," writes Hall, an agenda of charter schools and more "choice" that is strikingly similar to the "reforms" advocated by the Walton, Gates, and Broad foundations.
The Revolving Door Stays In Tact
If you want to see the power wealthy foundations can have on the nation's education policy, look at what they accomplished in the Obama administration.
As Arizona State University professors Sherman Dorn and Amanda Potterton write for Huffington Post, Arne Duncan, who presided over Obama's education department for seven of eight years, "opened the federal agency’s gates to a powerful network" of private actors and powerful interests that included the Gates foundation and NewSchools Venture Fund, "a venture philanthropy firm that sponsors the growth of charter school chains."
In both the people Duncan hired and the organizations he used to advance his policies, he relied on "private actors, including leaders of education nonprofits, charter school founders, and other nontraditional school leaders whose essential resources for reform come from the private wealth of major foundations."
The legacy of Duncan, Dorn and Potterton contend, is his reliance on private actors connected to wealthy foundations and businesses has led to an "ascendant Republican network [that has] used the reform rhetoric and regulatory momentum of Arne Duncan for its own ends."
For sure, the "ends" these influential organizations have in mind are somewhat different.
For instance, the Gates Foundation and the Walton Foundation might disagree about the role of vouchers in a choice agenda.
But what they all agree on is the means to policy-making. So what we're likely to see in the next administration is the revolving door that sent personnel from the Gates Foundation and the Center for American Progress to the DoE will be re-populated instead with people coming from the Walton Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.
The people may change, but the revolving door stays firmly in place.
Extremist In Charge
None of this is to ignore the level of extremism DeVos brings into education policy.
While DeVos synchs with what wealthy "reformers" want to do to schools, her opinions certainly diverge on other issues that affect education.
As Casey Quinlan of Think Progress, reports, DeVos "has a long record of supporting anti-LGBTQ causes," including donating (along with her husband Dick DeVos) to "efforts to amend the Michigan constitution to ban same-sex marriage" and contributing "hundreds of thousands to Focus on the Family, a group that supports conversion therapy, which subjects LGBTQ "patients" to coercive “counseling” in an attempt to rid them of their "condition."
Given this history, one has to wonder, as Quinlan does, how DeVos will regard anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ students in our schools.
In addition to mixing her attitudes on gender into her policies, DeVos may stir in her religious views.
As Rebecca Klein reports for Huffington Post, when Dick DeVos ran for Michigan governor in 2006, he campaigned on schools having the option to teach intelligent design alongside evolution. Also, the DeVos foundation – which wife and husband operate together – has given money to "the Thomas More Law Center, a group that defended a school trying to teach intelligent design."
There's little doubt that Betsy DeVos' religious views, as well as her free-market philosophy, motivate her strong support for education vouchers that enable parents to transfer their children to religious private schools at taxpayer expense.
In an in-depth piece for progressive news outlet Alternet, Rachel Tabachnick calls Betsy DeVos "the four-star general of the pro-voucher movement" and connects her to The Acton Institute, which according to Tabachnick, advocates religious control over government institutions, propagates advocacy for “Biblical Capitalism,” and supports the distribution of materials calling global warming a hoax.
Writing for the Center for Media and Democracy, Lisa Graves notes, the DeVoses, in public statements, have claimed their education efforts "focus on reforming public education and funding for private education because the 'Lord led us there' and 'God led us.'
"'Our desire,'" Graves continues to quote, "'is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God's Kingdom … to impact our culture [in ways] that may have great Kingdom gain in the long-run."
A Shift In The Overton Window
In the spectrum of views on education policy, what Betsy DeVos advocates can't be regarded as anything other than an extreme swing to the right.
As Kristina Rizga writes for Mother Jones, what "DeVos-style school choice policies look like on the ground" in Michigan is a bizarre landscape where charters, most of them for-profit, operate with impunity across the state, replicating failure after failure, sending parents into a never-ending scramble to get their kids a quality education, and pushing public schools to the brink.
As Dave Gilson explains, also for Mother Jones, what DeVos espouses for education will likely shift the Overton Window – a term coined by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank which DeVos financially supports – on what's acceptable to the public.
"While any discussion of eliminating public schooling may currently seem outrageous," Gilson writes, "that could change" under a DeVos administration where public schools are disparaged as "government schools" and letting parents transfer their children to religious private schools at taxpayers' expense is considered a "reform."
The Most Radical Change Of All
However, in the long term, shifts in the Overton Window may be of much less concern than who is doing the shifting.
In the case of Trump's nomination, substituting Betsy DeVos for Arne Duncan (current Secretary John King's influence has been marginal) in many respects is less about a change in ideology than it is about changing the face of a status quo.
In this sense, arguing for or against charters and choice has in many ways become a distraction. Many communities already accommodate charter schools and eagerly embrace the idea of offering parents a range of choices, if the district can afford it. What pisses people off, though, is when private foundations force charter schools on their community and parents are told by powerful outsiders what kind of choices they have.
"We should worry, Dorn and Potterton write, "when policies are shaped substantially outside ordinary public politics by an increasingly private set of actors, whose relationships with the public sphere can simultaneously be rivalrous, symbiotic, and parasitic. One does not need to be paranoid to worry about the concentration of decision-making in the hands of people who are friends and who are not accountable to the general public."
So whatever you think about who should be the next Education Secretary of the United States, and how extreme or mainstream their views should be, having someone not connected to big money would be the most radical change of all. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like we're going to get that.