Secretary of education
Rarely are nominees for education secretary controversial, but Donald Trump’s choice of the Republican fundraiser and activist Betsy DeVos has sounded alarm bells for more reasons than one.
DeVos, a conservative billionaire, will receive a confirmation hearing on Tuesday afternoon before the Senate health, education, labor and pensions committee. Her testimony was delayed by a week when Democrats raised concerns over what they dubbed DeVos’s “extensive financial entanglements and potential conflicts of interest”.
Her family’s cumulative wealth is estimated at $5.1bn, which, coupled with her extensive financial holdings, reportedly overwhelmed the federal watchdog agency tasked with vetting cabinet nominees. DeVos has donated extensively to Republican candidates, Super Pacs and party committees, with an emphasis on expanding charter schools and taxpayer-funded vouchers for both private and religious schools.
Key points to watch for
Conflicts of interest: In advance of the hearing, Democrats penned a letter calling on DeVos to disclose more financial information surrounding her contributions to political advocacy and lobbying groups.
DeVos has said she will sever “all connections” with her current business if confirmed, as well as resign as the chairman of the investment firm she launched with her husband, the Windquest Group, which has donated heavily to education-related causes that include charter schools and school vouchers.
But Democrats have complained that DeVos has not sufficiently addressed questions of conflicts of interest. They have pointed to her prior comments that donors “expect a return on our investment” – remarks which are likely to prompt questions on her approach to independent governance.
School choice: DeVos has never served in public office, but her support for conservative education reforms in Michigan offers a blueprint for her agenda if she is confirmed to Trump’s cabinet.
She has aggressively pushed to redirect taxpayer funds towards vouchers for low-income families who school choice advocates say are being failed by public schools.
In 2000, she was a major proponent of a failed ballot initiative in Michigan that would have amended the state’s constitution to establish a voucher system for students to attend private and religious schools.
Critics have said school vouchers lead to an environment lacking in adequate oversight, in addition to paving the way for education profiteering.
Religious influence: DeVos and her family have donated significant money to Christian schools and evangelical causes, including Focus on the Family, a group that touted gay conversion therapy – a scientifically discredited attempt to alter an individual’s sexual orientation.
The founder of Focus on the Family, which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the DeVoses, has labelled public curricula as “godless and immoral”and suggested Christian teachers should leave public education.
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