Betsy DeVos, the right-wing billionaire school choice advocate tapped today by President-elect Donald Trump to run the U.S. Education Department, is definitely good at some things. Arguably, she's displayed great skill in practicing the dark arts of big-money politics, using her family's vast Amway forture to woo state legislatures through lobbying and obscure political-action committees and impose a vast empire of charter schools from Michigan to Louisiana.
Her biggest failure, though, is a pretty huge one: Failing to do a damn thing to educate America's children, especially in the nation's poorest zip codes.
Take a look at Detroit -- Ground Zero for education reform in DeVos' home state of Michigan, where the heiress has pumped millions into the political system to boost what advocates call "school choice." The result is a broken urban school system where charter-school privateers have made big profits -- aided by the failure of an charter oversight bill that the DeVos family spent $1.45 million to fight -- and low student achievement has been locked in. Federal auditors discovered last year that an "unreasonably high" number of charters were among Michigan's worst 5 percent of schools.
Now. as Trump's pick for Education Secretary, DeVos -- with no governmental experience unless you count running the Michigan Republican Party -- will be in a position to push her unregulated brand of the charter-school grift with the full force of the federal government. And public school advocates in Philadelphia are horrified.
"Betsy DeVos has spent her family's billions trying to destroy public education all around the country," said City Council at-large member Helen Gym, who made her mark in Philadelphia's education wars before her 2015 election. Now, she says this "extreme ideologue" will have the bully pulpit of Washington, D.C., to advocate for even more charters, as well as for vouchers to send more kids to private or parochial schools, all of which would have a devastating impact for public schools in Philadelphia.
The president-elect's endorsement of a radical "school choice" agenda comes as the Philadelphia School District struggles to find equilibrium after a two-decade charter-school exodus that created massive budget holes and devastated dozens of fading neighborhood schools. During his 2016 campaign, Trump promised to re-purpose some $20 billion in federal dollars for school choice spending, to be administered by the states through block grants. Now, DeVos will be the high-profile point person for getting that done.
DeVos -- the sister of Erik Prince, founder of the notorious Iraq War-era private security firm Blackwater -- has been getting things done on the education front for 20 years...without leaving many fingerprints. Indeed, her American Federation for Children has backed numerous candidates in Pennsylvania with mixed results; 2015 mayoral hopeful state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams -- backed by three DeVos-allied trading-firm billionaires based in Bala Cynwyd -- was overwhelming rejected by Philadelphia voters in favor of Mayor Kenney, who instead is pushing for community schools with health care and other services in existing public schools.
In Louisiana, another charter school "paradise," officials claimed student achievement has improved dramatically -- but it turned out to be only because the system has essentially "disappeared" its most underprivileged children. The Southern Poverty Law Center has to sue in order to win better regulation of New Orleans' charters.
In Philadelphia, about 32 percent of the city's nearly 200,000 school kids attend charter schools already -- the 8th highest rate in the nation. The exodus has drained the coffers of the state School Reform Commission which runs the district and which doles out cash for each charter student while struggling to maintain existing public schools.
Some public-education supporters are already wondering whether the selection of DeVos may backfire, as the public recoils from such an openly extremist position on issues such as school choice and vouchers.
"I believe that most parents like their public schools and don't want them to be privatized." Diane Ravitch, education historian, charter critic and a former assistant secretary in the Education Department, wrote this week on her blog. "I endorse DeVos not because I want her ideas to prevail but because I want them exposed to the clear light of day and rejected because they are wrong for democracy, wrong for children, and wrong for education."
"People have been waking up to the idea that charters are some kind of fairy tale," added Gym, noting that some charters are "great" but that many are flawed. "We need to work collectively on a broader solution for all kids."
Unfortunately, that notion is about to be tested, and tested severely.