Politics & Policy

‘A Matter of Fairness’

Education secretary Betsy DeVos testifies on Capitol Hill, May 22, 2018. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
The struggle of Betsy DeVos

Editor’s Note: The below is an expansion of a piece published in the current issue of National Review.

Betsy DeVos is the unlikeliest villain you ever met. She is warm, polite, earnest, and generous. A wealthy woman, she has devoted her life to getting poor children a better shot at life. She is the education secretary, as you know. And during her confirmation process, Bruce Kovner sent me a note.

Kovner, like DeVos, is a philanthropist and education reformer. He wrote, “Betsy is one of the most selfless souls I know, totally devoted to helping disadvantaged kids. Works so hard at it, it should be inspiring. It’s disheartening to see her opponents enjoying their chance to maul her. But Betsy can take it.”

She could do almost anything in life, including put her feet up at the beach. (Any beach.) Yet she is in the political and policy trenches, fighting for school choice and other reform, not for the sake of rich kids but for the worst off. For her pains, she has been called a “white supremacist,” a “rape apologist” (yes), and virtually every other name in the book.

Above, I wrote, “She is the education secretary, as you know.” I felt justified in saying “as you know” because DeVos’s name recognition is extraordinarily high — something like 80 percent. Can you name the previous secretaries of education, under Obama, Bush, Clinton, and Bush? It’s not easy, even for those in the “business.” Almost certainly, DeVos is famous because she is vilified — and yet she can use this to her advantage, as people pay attention to her. She has no trouble drawing a crowd or media coverage. The platform of education secretary can be a powerful one, as Bill Bennett proved in the Reagan ’80s.

The current education secretary was born in 1958 and grew up in Holland, Mich. This is a town in West Michigan, settled by Dutchmen, as the name tells you. West Michigan is Dutch country, and they have a saying there: “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.” Other than that, they are not the boastful type. If you will indulge a stereotype, they are modest, hard-working, and very, very polite. (I’m from southeastern Michigan, and we’re a different kettle of fish.)

Last March, I watched Lesley Stahl do a number on Betsy DeVos on 60 Minutes. I thought, “West Michigan Dutch meets team of sharks.” DeVos was unfailingly polite and earnest, and she assumed the good will of the other guy. Also, she actually tried to answer the questions put to her, which they teach you not to do on the first day of politics school.

On a recent day in her office, I ask DeVos, “Would you like to say anything about the 60 Minutes interview?” “If I ever did something like that again,” she answers, “I would want to do it live.” She says that the editing was underhanded, although she puts it more gently than that: She feels she was “misrepresented.”

60 Minutes showed a Harvard student asking her a question: “So, you’re a billionaire with lots and lots of investments. And the so-called school-choice movement is a way to open the floodgates for corporate interests to make money off the backs of students. How much do you expect your net worth to increase as a result of your policy choices?” 60 Minutes did not show the secretary’s answer. It was as though she were stumped. But she indeed gave an answer, which she recounts to me.

It went something like this: “I could show you my checkbook, and you would see the checks going the other way — toward supporting students who are otherwise unable to get the education they deserve.” The idea that Betsy DeVos wants (or needs) to make money off education is grotesque. She is a giver to it, not a profiter off it.

Sitting with her, I want to ask about resentment of wealth, which I think plays a part in the vilification of her. “You’ve been rich all your life,” I say, “and” — and she interrupts me. “No,” she says. No? I stand corrected. “I was eight years old when my father started his business,” says DeVos. “I helped him paint the first cement-block office building, at eight.” Later, she worked on his factory lines, doing “the worst job,” she says, “because I was the boss’s daughter.” Her parents mortgaged everything, and “it was not until I was in college that the business really became successful.”

Her dad was Edgar Prince, an engineer who founded the Prince Corporation and developed an item that became standard, in cars: the lighted vanity mirror on a sun visor. An innovation like that will make you a bundle.

On 60 Minutes, Lesley Stahl said that Betsy DeVos came from a “sheltered life in Michigan.” DeVos takes exception to this, saying that she grew up with, and worked with, all sorts of people. Do not assume that she knows less about the world than you.

She tells me a little story about her upbringing — mainly to illustrate what a “strong personality” her father was. One day, when she was about eleven, the family got into a discussion of blueberry-picking. For some reason, Betsy declared that she could not imagine herself picking blueberries and would never do it. So her father made her pick blueberries — for two weeks. Every day. (Every weekday — weekends off.)

Ed Prince died in 1995, “much too young, from my perspective,” says DeVos. He was 63.

Back to this question of resentment of wealth: How does she deal with it? Some of it she can shrug off, some of it is harder to shrug off, but in any case: “I think that my husband and I are very generous in what we do and how we do it, and I take very seriously the Biblical admonition that to whom much is given, much is required, and I try to follow that in every part of my life, whether it’s financial resources or any skills that I have, so I do look at this as a service, with a genuine heart for those I have been trying to help for three decades plus.”

I do look at this as a service. By “this,” of course, she means her work for education, including as secretary.

DeVos went to Calvin College, an institution of the Christian Reformed Church. (The motto of the college is “My heart I offer to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely.”) Calvin is in Grand Rapids, the capital of West Michigan and of Dutch country, about 30 miles from Holland. So “I went away to school,” says DeVos, with a smile. In 1979, she married Dick DeVos, a prince of Grand Rapids, the son of a co-founder of the Amway corporation. (Dick DeVos is a trustee of the National Review Institute, which is the sister organization of this magazine.)

I ask DeVos — Betsy DeVos — “How did you get religion?” What I mean is, How did you come to embrace the cause of education reform, especially school choice? She answers, “My oldest son is 36 years old, and when he was entering kindergarten, my husband and I decided we would begin supporting a small faith-based school in the downtown of Grand Rapids, which was serving the neighborhoods in the area, mostly minority and low-income families.” In addition to giving, she volunteered at the school. That is, she gave her time.

It became clear that, for every child at the school, there were ten, twenty others whose families wished them there but could not find a way. Well-off parents — including the DeVoses — could send their own kids to any schools, but it was a different story for poor parents. “It became a matter of fairness to me,” says DeVos. “It’s not fair.”

She and her husband threw themselves into the education cause, and they soon entered politics. Betsy, for example, was the chairman of the Republican party in Michigan, and Dick was its gubernatorial nominee in 2006, losing to the Democratic incumbent, Jennifer Granholm.

They supported George W. Bush, an ardent education reformer himself. Betsy was on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, established by Jeb Bush, another ardent education reformer.

After the 2016 election, President-elect Trump nominated her to be the secretary. (Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, let it be known that Trump had offered him the job first.) Did DeVos ever think she would serve in a presidential cabinet? “I did not,” she smiles. The confirmation process was a battle royal. “It was not fun,” DeVos comments. Senate Democrats cut her up in every way they could think of. In the end, the Senate was deadlocked, 50–50. The vice president cast the tie-breaking vote.

Earlier this year, I tagged along as DeVos made school visits in the Dallas area. She dropped in on classroom after classroom, mainly listening. “Thanks for explaining it to me, guys,” she told students at Birdville High. They had shown her a mock crime lab.

Sometime during the day, I told her I was impressed by her patience and sheer stamina (all that standing, all that listening, all that smiling and nodding). She said, “Oh, it’s the best part of the job!”

Students were excited to meet her, especially the girls, I would say. She was clearly excited to meet them, too. Many selfies were taken.

Outside Birdville High, however, there was a clutch of protesters, holding signs and yelling at DeVos, as her car left the premises. “Our Kids Deserve Better than DeVos,” read one sign. “History Will Not Be Kind to You,” read another. One woman shouted, “Special snowflake kids go to voucher schools!”

DeVos has faced a lot worse than this, when it comes to protesters. Do they ever get to her? What does she think? “I try to put myself in their position, their shoes, and try to see things from their perspective.” The hateful protesters have been misinformed and misled, DeVos says. “I’ve semi-seriously suggested on more than one occasion that I go try to talk to some of the people who are protesting, and I would actually enjoy doing that” — but things could blow up quickly, too.

Conservative though she may be, DeVos does not want to conserve our public education system. She insists that Americans “rethink school,” as she says. (Indeed, this is a slogan.) “We must question everything about the way we do school in this country. There’s no more time for tinkering around the edges.” I tell her, half-teasingly, that she sounds like a radical. She wants schools to “take risks.” She laments that “90 percent of our kids are in a system that for the most part is doing things the same way across the country and doing them the same way they’ve been done for over a hundred years.”

Among her points, questions, and contentions are these: “Why assign kids to schools based on their addresses?” “Why group kids by age?” “Why force all students to learn at the same speed?” “Why measure education by hours and days?”

Back in the 1990s, we conservatives had a buzzword: “devolution.” It referred to the sending of governmental power out from Washington — out from Washington to the states, counties, cities, and towns. That’s what DeVos is engaged in doing. She thinks the federal government has been guilty of “creep.” “Creep” as in “mission creep.” Washington has crept into education, year after year.

As she sees it, hundreds of flowers should bloom, with school districts, and even individual schools, figuring out for themselves what works best for them. DeVos is one federal official who does not want to decree. She wants to empower and unleash.

In conversation with her, I bring up an old issue, and an old sore spot: People seem very resistant to school choice. It must be a result of the harsh and dishonest campaign against it — also of people’s fundamental conservatism. School choice is a sharp departure from the way things have always been done. I once discussed this with Milton Friedman (no less). He was keenly disappointed in the public’s resistance to, or reluctance about, school choice.

DeVos, for her part, says that resistance or reluctance is melting. Attitudes are shifting. She cites a poll that says that 54 percent of people favor school choice — universal school choice, i.e., choice for all. (The poll comes from Education Next.) This number is way up from previous findings. “So, we’re changing the conversation,” says DeVos. The conversation is flowing her way (and mine). The late Friedman would be pleased.

Think of Illinois, says DeVos, describing the state as “the bluest of the blue.” Illinois has now implemented what it calls a Kids Scholarship Tax Credit Program. According to DeVos, this means that “thousands of kids who have been languishing in schools to which they were assigned, and that have not been working for them, will have an opportunity to choose, with their parents, something that will work for them.”

She further says that support for school choice is very high in minority populations and among millennials — much higher than in the general population.

Like every other school-choice advocate, Betsy DeVos has been called a racist (although “white supremacist” is back in vogue). (True enough, there are plenty of white supremacists around.) This is an odd choice of words about a person who tries to rescue black and other minority children in particular. DeVos has also been called, as I mentioned, a “rape apologist.” What’s that about?

Title IX is the 1972 law that forbids sex discrimination on campus. More precisely, it forbids sex discrimination in educational programs that receive federal funds. In any case, the Education Department provides “guidance” on Title IX — and DeVos is asking for a rule on complaints of sexual assault. “We are very committed to a rule that will respect all parties,” she says. She wants to respect both accusers and accused. Due process has gone by the boards in recent years. “It’s also important,” she continues, “that institutions have a framework they can rely on, and that all parties can rely on” — something clear, sensible, and just.

If people who call DeVos a rape apologist — or a racist, for that matter — could meet her and really hear her, how would they feel? Ashamed, I’d like to think.

You may have heard, too, that she’s a pistol-packin’ mama, or one who wants teachers to pack pistols. What’s that about?

Again, this relates to a title: this time, Title IV, which has to do with financial aid. There are “pots of money,” says DeVos, “that Congress grants for educational purposes.” These monies can be put to any number of uses. “So a question was put to me, ‘Will you let schools use Title IV funds for arming teachers?’ and the very simple answer is that the law doesn’t say anything about that, and I’m not going to make up the law one way or another. If Congress wants to make law, that’s their role, not mine.”

DeVos tells me something I didn’t know, or have never focused on: The Education Department, weirdly enough, is a bank. A very, very big bank. “We have a $1.5 trillion student-loan portfolio,” she says, “and this department represents one of the biggest banks in the world, which makes no sense. It should not be constructed this way, so this is a big issue for me, to tackle from a variety of angles.” She wants the student-loan experience to be much easier for students, and “ultimately a much better deal for taxpayers.”

Her job gives her a platform, as I said at the top of this piece: a powerful platform, exploited brilliantly and memorably by William J. Bennett in the 1980s. Betsy DeVos gets in her shots. She got in many of them in a speech delivered in Philadelphia on September 17 of this year. September 17 is Constitution Day, and DeVos spoke at the National Constitution Center (where else?).

She told some horror stories. For example,

An official student-activities board at the College of William & Mary, a public campus in Virginia, recently hosted a director of the American Civil Liberties Union for a discussion of free speech. Almost as soon as the event got underway, students rushed the stage and began to shout down the ACLU representative … The event never resumed.

DeVos doesn’t think much of “free-speech zones,” by the way. “I think a whole campus should be a free-speech zone,” she tells me. She herself went to Calvin College, as you know. This is a private religious college — but she still felt she could say whatever she wanted, and she did some arguing with professors, on economic questions in particular. (DeVos is a free-enterpriser.)

Visiting a middle school as education secretary, she met a teacher who wore a shirt that said, “Find your truth.” This became the occasion for a riff in her Philadelphia speech. She deplored our “relativistic culture,” saying, “Surely we’ve all heard something that goes like this: ‘You have your truth. And I have mine.’ … The pernicious philosophy of relativism teaches that there is no objective truth.”

She also had some advice about calming the storms that erupt on campus, and many other places, too:

Begin with yourself. In our fast-paced, noisy world, it is healthy to develop an interior life. Be still, pray, reflect, review, contemplate. Starting with ourselves — with introspection — would help us approach each other with more respect and grace.

Then listen — really listen! — and then personally engage those with whom we disagree. It’s easy to be nasty hiding behind screens and Twitter handles. It’s not so easy when we are face to face. When we are, we more quickly recognize that behind each strongly held idea are heartbeats, emotions, experiences — in other words, a real person.

Yes, the platform of education secretary is a juicy opportunity.

Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes and many other journalists have noted that Secretary DeVos is widely despised. (I have noted the same, in this piece.) But she is also widely admired — and not just by her fellow conservatives (like me). Wherever she goes, parents thank her for what she is doing. And not country-club parents. On the contrary.

Two of her staffers tell me something interesting. They used to worry when members of the public ran after her. Were they going to yell at her? Dress her down? But almost invariably, these people want to thank, praise, or encourage DeVos.

The secretary herself tells me something interesting: These days, she often enters hotels and conference centers through back entrances. This means she meets workers behind the scenes, who are not fancy, and usually not white. The appreciation they express is gratifying (and unreported).

Betsy DeVos is trying to do something very hard, namely to break the “absolute stranglehold,” she says, that the teachers’ unions and their allies have long had on education. “Change is hard and change is scary, so there’s a pretty big body that’s complicit in ensuring that the status quo is not upset.” What DeVos calls “a pretty big body,” Bennett used to call “the Blob.”

Those who know her say that Betsy DeVos is a lovely West Michigan lady, certainly — but also iron-like, quietly. The Blob has a more formidable foe than it may know.


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