Elisabeth "Betsy" DeVos is a conservative businesswoman, philanthropist and education activist from Michigan. She is well known for her efforts to promote charter schools, which are publicly funded but run independently. She is the chairwoman of the Windquest Group, a private company she and her husband founded in 1989 to invest in technology and clean energy. On November 23, Donald Trump announced that she would be his nominee for secretary of education.
On February 7, the Senate voted to confirm her: because two Republicans voted against her, leading to a 50-50 tied, Vice President Mike Pence had to cast the 51st vote in her favor. It was the first time in Senate history that a confirmation vote was deadlocked, reflecting doubts about DeVos' lack of experience in the government or the classroom.
DeVos, 58, is believed to be extremely wealthy. She is the daughter of Edgar Prince, founder of the Prince Corporation, an auto parts manufacturer which was sold to Johnson Controls International PLC (JCI) for $1.35 billion in 1996. Her husband Dick DeVos is the son of Amway founder Richard DeVos, whose net worth Forbes estimates at $5.1 billion.
The DeVoses have long been a force in state and national politics. Betsy has been active in the Michigan Republican Party since 1982, and she chaired the National Republican Committee for Michigan from 1992 to 1997 and the Michigan Republican Party for six years between 1996 and 2005. She raised over $150,000 for George W. Bush's reelection campaign in 2004, and her husband was the Republican nominee for governor of Michigan in 2006. They have consistently donated to anti-gay organizations, including at least one that pursues "conversion therapy," a practiced intended to alter sexual orientation that is opposed by the American Medical Association and other professional groups.
DeVos' main focus, however, has been school choice: "what we are trying to do is tear down the mindset that assigns students to a school based solely on the zip code of their family's home," she told Philanthropy Roundtable in 2013. She chaired the American Federation for Children – a 501(c)4 umbrella group for a number of interlinked advocacy efforts, including a 501(c)3 and a political action committee – for seven years before stepping down following her nomination. She has been instrumental in setting up Detroit's charter school system. The state as a whole hardly stands out for academic achievement: the Urban Institute ranks Michigan 47th in the nation for math and reading.
Vouchers are another policy priority for DeVos, although she has not succeeded in introducing them to Michigan. Voucher programs give parents a stipend towards paying for private school. Proponents of these initiatives argue that public schools are ineffective, complacent and in hock to teacher unions that oppose performance-based approaches to education.
The National Education Association, the country's largest teacher union, is unsurprisingly aghast: "the Trump administration has demonstrated just how out of touch it is with what works best for students, parents, educators, and communities," the union's president, Lily Eskelsen García, said in a statement on DeVos' nomination. "She has consistently pushed a corporate agenda to privatize, de-professionalize and impose cookie-cutter solutions to public education."
Partly due to DeVos' efforts, 80% of Michigan's charter schools are for-profit, compared to 13% nationwide. The results are not encouraging. In Detroit, charter schools are even worse than the local public schools, which received the worst standardized test scores of any urban area in the country in 2009. Deregulation has brought a flood of competitors, but little improvement: it is "not uncommon" for a child to attend five to seven schools, the New York Times wrote in June.
DeVos has not worked in the public education sector, and both of her children attended private, Christian schools.
She supported Senator Marco Rubio during the Republican primaries, calling Trump an "interloper" and saying she had "reservations about him as a person."