“School choice” is an increasingly loud refrain from the conservative side of the aisle, but don’t be fueled by this euphemism. It is simply a way to funnel taxpayer money towards private religious schools and away from the public school system. Despite widespread opposition from voters, Republican leaders like the DeVos family continue to push for them, and now Donald Trump has given this movement a prominent position in his cabinet.
The DeVos family is a particularly scary embodiment of the Republican Party’s war on public education. They poured millions of dollars into a voucher program in Michigan, where it was defeated by 68 percent of voters. Unable to accept the will of the people, they then moved on to pressuring state legislators across the country. Their lobbying organization, All Children Matter, has been busy pressuring Rust Belt politicians with dishonest advertising funded by wealthy out-of-state donors. In Ohio, All Children Matter has been fined $5.2 million for violating campaign finance law. Instead of paying it, they reorganized as the American Federation for Children (AFEC).
Digging into the family’s history is upsetting as well. Betsy DeVos never attended public school a day in her life yet has spent much of her time trying to dismantle one of the greatest institutions in our country. Her family made their fortune in the automobile parts industry, and she increased her wealth by marrying Dick DeVos, heir to the Amway billions. She and her husband own multiple homes across the country as well as a yacht, and their children attended private religious schools.
Vouchers were first proposed in the 1950s, when conservative icon Milton Friedman proposed them as a way to “transition from a government to a free-market system.” In other words, Friedman saw vouchers as a tool for completely eliminating public schools. Since his proposal, the Republican Party has tried for decades to promote the privatization of government-run schools. Unfortunately for the GOP, voters turned down 24 of the 25 state-level voucher programs proposed over the years. Research on two of the biggest city programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland has shown that students in the voucher program actually perform worse than their public school counterparts. Given the Republican Party’s views towards climate change science, vaccine research and comprehensive sexual education, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that they aren’t letting longitudinal peer-reviewed studies slow them down.
What motivated Donald Trump to nominate Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education? It could be the millions of dollars she raised for the Republican Party when she was Chair of the Michigan GOP. It certainly isn’t her experience with public schools – she has none – or her years serving in state or federal government – she’s never done that either. To many analysts, it seems likely the Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, who heavily supported the expansion of voucher programs in his home state of Indiana, is behind the pick. Her deep ties to the Republican party, decades of lobbying state legislators and commitment to furthering her own religious beliefs suggest the opposite of Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp.” Now, voters can only wait to see who else Mike Pence chooses for the cabinet.