Government

5 Things to Know About Betsy DeVos

January 17, 2017

Reuters
Betsy DeVos, the nominee to lead the Department of Education, will appear Tuesday before the Senate education committee. Here are a few topics she might be questioned about.

U.S. Senators are scheduled to begin confirmation hearings Tuesday on President-elect Donald J. Trump's pick to run the Department of Education, Elisabeth D. (Betsy) DeVos.

Starting at 5 p.m., Ms. DeVos will field questions from the members of the Senate's Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, led by Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee. Some sharp partisan lines have already been drawn over her nomination, with Democrats raising questions over her extensive political donations and lack of experience. Republicans are promising a relatively swift process for a nominee who Mr. Alexander says, will impress lawmakers with her "passionate support for improving education for all children."

Here are five key things to keep in mind about the nominee for education secretary:

1. Ms. DeVos and her husband, Richard DeVos Jr., are billionaire philanthropists who have donated millions of dollars to higher-education institutions in their home state of Michigan and across the country, supporting a variety of programs, scholarships, and building projects. Much of this giving has come through the couple's own foundation, which also supports arts organizations and a public charter high school that seeks to prepare students for careers in aviation. (Mr. DeVos is a pilot of several kinds of aircraft.) Also, Mr. Trump's transition team acknowledged on Friday that Ms. DeVos had omitted from her disclosures to the Senate committee a $125,000 donation she made to a Michigan group that successfully opposed an initiative that would have made collective-bargaining rights part of the state constitution.

2. Like several past education secretaries, she has neither taught at nor led an educational institution. Despite her lack of experience, she long ago settled on a policy preference: She is a fervent supporter of organizations that promote school choice, which allows tax dollars to be used for students to attend charter schools and provides vouchers to pay for tuition at private schools. Ms. DeVos, a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, has also used her wealth to leverage political clout in the state and across the country for such measures. In that role, she has developed a reputation among some Republican state legislators as inflexible and uncompromising.

3. Republicans in Congress, including several on the Senate committee, have gotten more than $300,000 in campaign cash from Ms. DeVos, according to her own disclosures and analyses by campaign-finance watchdog groups, such as the Center for Responsive Politics. Mr. Alexander has not received campaign contributions from the nominee. Although Ms. DeVos did not support Mr. Trump during the Republican presidential primary campaign, as education secretary, she would be poised to help the new president carry out his plan to create a $20-billion program for school choice nationwide.

4. Senate Democrats will most likely oppose Ms. DeVos's nomination based primarily on her support of school choice. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the education committee's ranking Democrat, said in a prepared statement that she had "serious concerns" about Ms. DeVos's "long record of working to privatize and defund public education, expand taxpayer-funded private-school vouchers, and block accountability for charter schools." Democrats have also raised concerns about Ms. DeVos's financial entanglements through the Windquest Group, the investment company she owns with her husband. For example, The Wall Street Journal has reported that the company holds an indirect stake in the online lending company Social Finance Inc., which offers student-loan refinancing, among other services

5. Advocates for gay rights, including some members of Congress, and survivors of sexual assault have also raised concerns about Ms. DeVos. They question whether her conservative religious upbringing and free-market ideals will lead her to weaken enforcement of Title IX, which is meant to ensure gender equity on college campuses. But a professor at Calvin College, Ms. DeVos's alma mater, previously told The Chronicle that she is not a "shill for the religious right," while a longtime adviser, who is openly gay, said that Ms. DeVos "believes in the equality and dignity of every human being."

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.