Magazine | November 12, 2018, Issue

‘A Matter of Fairness’

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

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. Bruce Kovner, her fellow philanthropist and fellow reformer, says, “Betsy is one of the most selfless souls I know.”

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 education reform, not for the sake of rich kids but for the worst off. For her pains, she has been called every name in the book.

Betsy DeVos, as you know, is the secretary of education. I say “as you know” because she has unusually high name recognition — something like 80 percent. Can you name the previous secretaries of education, under Obama, Bush, Clinton, and Bush? It’s not easy. 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.”

I want to ask her 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.

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.”

By “this,” 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.

After the 2016 election, President-elect Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to be the education 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. At Birdville High, students were excited to meet her, especially the girls. And DeVos was equally pleased to meet them. Many selfies were taken. Outside the school, 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.”

Back in the 1990s, we conservatives had a buzzword: “devolution.” The sending of governmental power out from Washington to the states, counties, cities, towns, and hamlets. That’s what DeVos is engaged in doing. 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.

Lesley Stahl and many other journalists — including me, in this little piece — have noted that Betsy DeVos is widely despised. 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. Also, DeVos relates an interesting phenomenon of her life: 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).

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,” Bill Bennett used to call “the Blob.”

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

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