Government

Why Trump’s Billionaire Nominee Has Awakened Such Fierce Opposition

January 27, 2017

Chronicle photo by Julia Schmalz
Betsy DeVos has emerged as perhaps President Trump’s most-contentious cabinet pick.

Secretaries of education have typically breezed through the confirmation process with little, if any, opposition from the U.S. Senate and only passing interest from the public.

That’s not at all how things have transpired for Betsy DeVos.

Ms. DeVos, who is President Trump’s choice to lead the U.S. Department of Education, has instead gained national notoriety, with a wide range of groups urging the Senate to reject her nomination. Teachers’ unions, public-school officials, civil-rights groups, and advocates for strong enforcement of gender-equity laws have waged campaigns against her.

The opposition has emerged through an unusually fierce blend of activism on social media and in more traditional venues. Politico, for example, noted that tens of thousands of callers had flooded Senate phone lines with calls urging lawmakers to vote against Ms. DeVos. And a letter of objection from an alumna at Ms. DeVos’s alma mater, Calvin College, has attracted hundreds of signatures from other graduates of the institution.

Support for Ms. DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist, has come from a narrower, though not entirely partisan, range of interests that support school choice or are critical of public schools. Most Republican lawmakers are backing Ms. DeVos as a Washington outsider who will limit the federal role in education policy.

Elected officials, advocacy groups, religious schools and politically conservative organizations have sent more than 100 letters of support to Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the committee considering the nominee.

Despite the caricatures and heated rhetoric, however, two months after her nomination there is still little known about what Ms. DeVos will do as education secretary. And in that void of information, opponents have found room for their worst fears about privatization, reduced accountability, and an abandonment of the civil-rights enforcement that became a hallmark of the Obama administration.

Aside from her advocacy for school choice, Ms. DeVos has no real record of crafting policy. Her written statement to senators considering her nomination provided only broad assertions about her aims and nothing about how she plans to achieve them. That is largely consistent with the president’s own limited proposals on education and signals that beyond the school-choice issue, the administration will put little emphasis on a broader education agenda, especially for higher education.

Even some supporters note that Ms. DeVos and her plans for expanding school choice could be hampered by the negative attention, which intensified after her at-times shaky confirmation hearing this month.

She is "far and away" the most controversial nominee ever for the position, said Frederick M. Hess, an education scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who has described Ms. DeVos as a "solid pick" despite the furor over her selection.

The backlash is fueled not only by concerns about Ms. DeVos, but also by deep partisan divisions and the president’s own unpopularity, he said.

Those factors could combine to undermine the school-choice movement that Ms. DeVos has long championed, Mr. Hess said. It’s hard to imagine people separating the president from the efforts of his administration, he said. "Trump casts a pretty big shadow."

‘Aggressively Opposed’

Leading the fight against Ms. DeVos from the beginning have been teachers’ unions, which vigorously oppose the use of vouchers to pay for private-school tuition. The National Education Association, one of the nation’s two major teacher unions, even promoted a day for public-school teachers to wear red as a sign of protest against the department’s would-be secretary.

"The education establishment has never been so aggressively opposed to a nominee," said Jeanne Allen, chief executive of the Center for Education Reform, which also advocates for school choice and has backed Ms. DeVos’s selection.

Former secretaries, such as Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings, have advocated for that policy, she said, "but it is the centerpiece of the Trump administration."

"The last time you’ve seen this level of opposition to school choice was when Bill Bennett — education secretary under President Reagan — talked about it," said Ms. Allen. "They made him out to be the devil," she added.

John Thelin, a professor of educational-policy studies at the University of Kentucky, said Mr. Bennett was considered somewhat controversial. But he had "impeccable academic credentials," including a doctoral degree in political philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin and a law degree from Harvard.

"Few, if any complained that he was uninformed or inexperienced," Mr. Thelin said.

Ms. DeVos, on the other hand, has a bachelor’s degree in political science and no professional experience working at a school or college. Her background in education consists largely of her donations to groups that support school choice, such as the American Federation for Children, a project of a foundation started by Ms. DeVos and her husband. She has also been a prominent Republican donor at all levels of government in her home state of Michigan and across the nation. Ms. DeVos has no known experience in higher-education policy.

Some people consider Ms. DeVos’s lack of experience to be a positive attribute, said Mr. Thelin, because she is seen as "uninfluenced and unsullied" by the education establishment.

But her lack of a concrete policy background has also given her opponents an opening to fill with fears of a worst-case-scenario.

Groups supporting gay rights have raised concerns about donations from Ms. DeVos or her family members to organizations that have opposed their efforts. Ms. DeVos has sought to assuage those concerns by signaling her support, for instance, for same-sex marriage.

But the nominee’s uneven performance at her confirmation hearing also amplified some critics’ concerns that she does not understand basic education policy.

Matt Frendewey, national communications director for the American Federation for Children, said the Democrats’ strategy was meant to cut off her answers while complaining about the limited amount of time for questions. He said the nominee "answered all of her questions fully and as openly as she could."

Can She Succeed?

The fight will come to a head on Tuesday when the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions is scheduled to vote on her nomination before sending it to the full Senate. Despite Democrats’ opposition, Republicans in the majority are still likely to approve Ms. DeVos.

The committee’s chairman, Senator Alexander, has made it clear that he supports Ms. Devos, writing: "Few Americans have done as much to help low-income students have a choice of better schools."

But even if she is confirmed, questions remain about how much she will be able to succeed. As education secretary, she will have an enormous opportunity to advance school choice, the one policy proposal she has dedicated a large amount of her money and time promoting. At the same time, she may be risking the success of that initiative by associating with President Trump.

Ms. Allen, of the Center for Education Reform, said the real risk is whether "traditional, less-bold Republicans feel like they have to be careful" and thus oppose her agenda.

For instance, Sens. Mike Enzi, of Wyoming, and Susan Collins, of Maine, "have never been big choice fans," said Ms. Allen, and in a closely divided Senate "they will need those votes to get anything big done."

"The job may feel more difficult if she is confirmed without widespread, vocal support," Ms. Allen added.

Mr. Frendewey said any talk of political risk is "unfounded and coming from folks who shy away from difficult political battles."

Ms. DeVos will build bipartisan relationships, he said, "When we emerge from this hyperpartisan process and the politics drifts away, and she starts to work with members on legislation."

Mr. Hess, at the American Enterprise Institute, was less sanguine. Tying the school-choice policy to President Trump could ultimately do more to harm the movement than help it, he said.

"Trump is a loose cannon with no obvious set of governing principles, and he has a habit of saying things in a crude and relatively unhelpful fashion," said Mr. Hess. "I don’t think anybody would necessarily choose him as the frontman for their particular movement."

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.