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What you should know about Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary pick — and what her choice might tell us about his plans

PHOTO: YouTube / American Federation for Children
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

President-elect Donald Trump has tapped Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos to be his education secretary.

“I am honored to work with the President-elect on his vision to make American education great again,” DeVos tweeted Wednesday. “The status quo in ed is not acceptable.”

DeVos, an advocate for school vouchers, has chaired the Michigan Republican party and played a key role in some major education policy decisions there in recent years. But unlike former D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee and charter-school leader Eva Moskowitz, two others Trump considered for the education secretary position, DeVos has kept a relatively low national profile. She has neither worked in public education nor chosen public schools for her own children, who attended private Christian schools.

Earlier this week, Chalkbeat compiled a few things we could reasonably surmise from a DeVos pick:

1. Trump intends to go through with his sweeping voucher plan.

On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to use federal funds to encourage states to make school choice available to all poor students, including through vouchers that allow families to take public funding to private schools.

That’s exactly what DeVos has zealously worked to make happen on a state-by-state basis for decades. In 2000, she helped get a ballot measure before Michigan voters that would have enshrined a right to vouchers in the state’s Constitution. After the measure failed, she and her husband formed a political action committee to support pro-voucher candidates nationally. Less than a decade later, the group counted a 121-60 win-loss record.

One recipient of its support: former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who created the voucher program that Trump’s vice president-elect, Mike Pence, later expanded. Indeed, DeVos’s vision puts her more in line with Pence, who has supported private school vouchers for both low- and middle-income families, than with Trump, whose plan extends only to poor families.

Trump also vowed to promote publicly funded but privately managed charter schools. But DeVos, whose husband founded an aviation-themed charter school in their hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, has expressed reservations about them.

“Charter schools take a while to start up and get operating,” she told Philanthropy Roundtable in 2013. “Meanwhile, there are very good non-public schools, hanging on by a shoestring, that can begin taking students today.”

2. School oversight might not be the education department’s top concern.

DeVos and her husband played a role in getting Michigan’s charter school law passed in 1993, and ever since have worked to protect charters from additional regulation. When Michigan lawmakers this year were considering a measure that would have added oversight for charter schools in Detroit, members of the DeVos family poured $1.45 million into legislators’ campaign coffers — an average of $25,000 a day for seven weeks. Oversight was not included in the final legislation.

The DeVos influence is one reason that Michigan’s charter sector is among the least regulated in the country. Roughly 80 percent of charters in Michigan are run by private companies, far more than in any other state. And state authorities have done little up to now to ensure that charter schools are effectively serving students, eliciting concern from current federal authorities.

“There are a lot of schools that are doing poorly and charter authorizers do not seem to be taking the necessary actions to either improve performance or close those underperforming charters,” current U.S. Secretary of Education John King told Chalkbeat about Michigan last month.

3. The Common Core would remain a question mark.

DeVos hasn’t been outspoken about the Common Core, the shared learning standards adopted by most states in recent years. But some of her ties would suggest that she supports the effort to raise and standardize expectations of what students should learn in each grade. She’s on the board of Foundation for Excellence in Education, the group that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush founded to promote school choice and the Common Core.

On the campaign trail, Trump routinely denounced the standards — despite his having no authority to “repeal” them — in statements that won applause from conservatives and liberal parents and teachers alike. But his transition team said the meeting with DeVos “focused on the Common Core mission, and setting higher national standards and promoting the growth of school choice across the nation.”

The statement suggests a possible effort to achieve the standards’ goals without promoting the Common Core brand — exactly the middle path that many states have chosen as they revise the standards, often only lightly, and rename them.

4. The education secretary won’t be a counterweight to Republican officials.

Trump’s consideration of Moskowitz and Rhee, both self-identified Democrats, raised the hopes of some that the federal education department’s leader could counterbalance some more hard-right administration officials. (It also prompted one prominent education lobbying group to issue a statement calling on Democrats not to take a position in Trump’s administration.)

That hope would evaporate if DeVos is the choice, though there is some evidence that she is less extreme than some of the voices gaining prominence in Trump’s administration so far. For one, she did not support Trump even once he became the presumptive Republican nominee, throwing her vote as a party delegate instead behind Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Two years ago, she also publicly called for a Republican leader in Michigan to step down after he made anti-gay and anti-Muslim comments on social media.

But she is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican party leader who has been more conservative on education issues than some of her colleagues. In fact, DeVos stepped down as chair of Michigan’s Republican party in 2000 after the Republican governor declined to support vouchers. (She later took the position back.)

Outside of education, her family gave heavily to efforts to ban same sex-marriage in Michigan.

5. DeVos will have to operate outside of most of the world she has known.

Many of DeVos’ successes have resulted from using her family’s considerable financial resources. DeVos family foundations reported lifetime charitable giving of more than $1.2 billion earlier this year to institutions ranging from hospitals to arts organizations. Political donations — to oppose gay marriage, support vouchers, and sway lawmakers from increasing oversight to charter schools — came on top of that. As education secretary, she would not be able to rely on her personal wealth and approach to get things done.

Instead, she would have to operate within a complicated web of interests and priorities, including with education officials in states that did not support Trump. Her work up to now has been largely within the Republican Party, but she has expressed confidence in the past about being able to cross party lines.

“What we’ve tried to do is engage with Democrats, to make it politically safe for them to do what they know in their heart of hearts is the right thing,” DeVos said in 2013. “Education should be non-partisan.”

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Betsy DeVos laments death of Memphis civil rights leader Dwight Montgomery

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Pastor Dwight Montgomery, president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, prays with Kellogg workers who filed race-based discrimination complaints in 2014. Montgomery died on Sept. 13 at the age of 67.

The death of a prominent Memphis pastor drew condolences Thursday from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who praised the Rev. Dwight Montgomery for his education advocacy work.

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

DeVos issued her statement a day after the death of Montgomery, 67, one of few prominent black civil rights leaders to back the divisive education chief:

“Rev. Montgomery was a steadfast advocate for equality and opportunity for all, especially for students and parents. He knew neither income nor address should determine the quality of education a child receives. Through his work in Memphis and with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, many students and families benefitted from opportunities, both educational and spiritual, they would otherwise have been denied.

We in the education community mourn the loss of his leadership, but most who knew him mourn the loss of their pastor. My prayers are with the faithful of Annesdale Cherokee Baptist Church as they will be the legacy of their shepherd.”

Since 2004, Montgomery had been president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization founded in 1957 to extend the momentum of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that vaulted Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence.

In that role, Montgomery backed efforts that would support local Christian schools — including tuition vouchers, which set aside public money for children to attend private schools. Voucher legislation has failed to pass in Tennessee for at least a dozen years, with the hottest bed of opposition in Memphis, where recent bills would have launched a pilot program.

DeVos is a staunch advocate of the policy and has said she would like to incentivize states to create voucher programs, although it is unclear what the Trump administration might do to make that happen.

PHOTO: Tennessee Federation for Children
Dwight Montgomery (second from right) rallied pastors to present a petition in support of vouchers to the Tennessee legislature in 2015.

After DeVos’ confirmation hearings in January, Montgomery wrote a commentary for The Commercial Appeal calling her “a wonderful woman” and “the reform-minded Education Secretary our country needs.”

In Tennessee and Florida, chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have frequently partnered with the American Federation for Children, an organization that DeVos once chaired, to push vouchers as a civil rights issue. In 2015, Montgomery led a group of pastors affiliated with SCLC to the state Capitol to present a petition of 25,000 signatures supporting vouchers.

Montgomery also served as the chairman of the education committee for the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association.

Most recently, he has supported an effort that DeVos’ boss does not endorse: to relocate a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from a Memphis park in the wake of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. This week, Montgomery was among more than 150 Memphis religious leaders who signed a letter asking for support from the Tennessee Historical Commission.

devos on tour

The tiny Nebraska private school Betsy DeVos visited today offered some quiet protest

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

Talk about an awkward reception.

Nelson Mandela Elementary School is the kind of tiny private school that might benefit from school choice policies that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supports.

But when DeVos stopped by the Omaha school Thursday as part of her “Rethink School” tour, she encountered a bit of resistance.

From the Omaha World-Herald:

Several teachers and students wore “NE (Heart) Public Schools” stickers.

While Mandela is a private school funded by the Lozier Foundation and William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation, Lozier said in a release that school officials do not support charter schools, which DeVos has championed. The school has a strong cooperative relationship with [Omaha Public Schools], she said.

But make no mistake, Mandela, housed in the former Blessed Sacrament church, is not a charter school. (Nebraska does not allow charter schools.)

“We’re not a charter school and that’s the message we want to hit home today,” she said at a press briefing after DeVos’ visit. “We’re not setting up a conflict or competition between the school systems – public, private, Catholic. We’re all in the business of helping kids learn.”

DeVos, along with her predecessors in the Obama administration, supports charter schools, which are privately operated but publicly funded. When charter schools are allowed, they can put a squeeze on private school enrollment by giving families a free alternative to local public schools.

What DeVos didn’t find at Mandela were active protesters. She got one at her next stop — dressed like a bear.

No protesters were seen before the visit at Mandela. At St. Mary’s, Donna Roller, a former Montessori teacher, showed up to protest in a bear mask. The mask was in reference to DeVos’ statements that guns should be allowed in schools in case of a bear attack.

DeVos headed back to friendlier terrain for her next stop of the day. Hope Academy, a charter school that serves students in recovery from addiction, is in Indianapolis — a city that DeVos has repeatedly praised, in a state whose choice policies reflect her priorities.