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Trump Picks School Privatizer for Education Secretary

Betsy DeVos funded voucher movement in Wisconsin

Dec. 13, 2016
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President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, should be a familiar name to those in Wisconsin.

The DeVos family’s fortune has underwritten Wisconsin’s voucher movement for years.

Among voucher supporters, Michigan resident DeVos and her husband Richard are the top donors to Wisconsin legislators, according to data from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC).

WDC Executive Director Matthew Rothschild told the Shepherd Betsy DeVos has contributed $89,140 to Wisconsin candidates between 2002 and 2015, while the DeVos family has donated $480,430 during the same period.

In addition to her personal contributions, DeVos chairs the Washington, D.C.-based American Federation for Children, which poured $5.4 million into Wisconsin races between 2010 and 2015, the WDC calculated. That sum made it the seventh biggest group source of campaign cash in Wisconsin, slightly less than the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity’s donations ($5.6 million) and more than the National Rifle Association’s cash ($3.6 million).

No wonder why Gov. Scott Walker tweeted after DeVos’ nomination, “Congrats to my friend Betsy DeVos on being the next Secretary of Education.”

What did DeVos get for her millions?

“There’s just a handful of people who have financed the Walker revolution here, and Betsy DeVos is one of them,” Rothschild said. “Certainly John Menard and Diane Hendricks, and maybe Richard Uihlein—literally just a handful of multi-, multi-millionaires and billionaires have been the ones who financed the Walker wrecking crew and are largely responsible for the sorry state that Wisconsin is in right now.”

He predicted that American Federation for Children would become even more influential if DeVos is confirmed as education secretary.

“It’ll give American Federation for Children even more clout when they’re operating in Wisconsin or other states and proposing things because the people they are talking to, the legislators, know that the founder of the organization is running the whole education system in Washington,” Rothschild said. “I think this is doubly bad news that way.”

Ground Zero for Vouchers

Milwaukee has the oldest voucher school program in the country, and the Michigan-sourced DeVos money has been funding the education privatization movement in Wisconsin since its earliest days.

DeVos is heiress to a multi-billion dollar car parts fortune (she’s also the sister of notorious Blackwater founder Erik Prince), and her husband, Richard, is the son of an Amway co-founder. DeVos, a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, has generously supported Republicans around the country and is part of the Koch network.

DeVos-backed right-wing pro-school privatization groups All Children Matter and American Federation for Children—along with “allies” Hispanics for School Choice and School Choice Wisconsin—have supported primarily Republicans but some conservative Democrats as well, including former South Side Sen. Jeff Plale, who lost his seat in a Democratic primary to Chris Larson in 2010. In 2012, American Federation for Children dumped more than $100,000 into Milwaukee Democratic primaries—in support of Elizabeth Coggs, Millie Coby, Jason Fields, Tracey Dent and Jarett Fields—all of whom lost their races to more progressive Democrats.

American Federation for Children is also a big source of “issue ads,” thinly disguised campaign ads that don’t explicitly say “vote for” or “vote against.” These ads often have nothing to do with school vouchers. For example, pro-Plale ads in 2010 praised him for saving 300 jobs at Bucyrus, yet there is no evidence he had anything to do with the matter.

In 2008, the DeVos-backed All Children Matter’s Virginia state political action committee (PAC) disseminated a mailer targeting then Democratic Rep. John Lehman of Racine, which likely crossed the line into overt campaign advocacy. The group, which never explained why its Virginia PAC was paying for Wisconsin campaign ads, fessed up to the potential violation. In 2009, the Wisconsin chapter of All Children Matter paid a $500 fine for the wrongdoing. That vastly pales in comparison to the $5.2 million fine the Ohio Election Commission levied against All Children Matter for violations in that state in 2008.

Speaking of dirty campaigning, American Federation for Children has also employed disgraced former Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, going as far back as 2004, two years after he was charged with three felonies and a misdemeanor related to the caucus scandal. In 2005, he was convicted on all counts and sentenced to five years in prison. But in 2010, Jensen won an appeal and in the Republican-friendly venue of Waukesha County was able to settle by pleading guilty to just one misdemeanor. Throughout his legal troubles, Jensen was employed as a top advisor by DeVos and also represented the organization at the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) meetings.

Jensen didn’t respond to the Shepherd’s request to comment on his work. The group’s Wisconsin lobbyist Justin Moralez told the Shepherd, “Scott Jensen, who is the chief strategist for American Federation for Children, was actively involved in the actual launch [of the voucher program]. So he is directly connected with the program.”

Center for Media and Democracy Executive Director Lisa Graves said she questioned DeVos’ judgment in employing Jensen while he was facing felony charges and after his conviction.  

“To me, a big concern is why you would trust someone to lead a federal agency who has so little regard for how our taxpayer dollars are spent that she would hire someone as her point person who was accused and then convicted of misusing taxpayer money to advance his personal political objectives,” Graves told the Shepherd.

Graves has also dug up an interview with Richard and Betsy DeVos discussing why they decided to look for public moneys to pay for private school tuition via vouchers.

As Graves reported, when asked if it would be simpler to fund Christian schools directly, rather than go the taxpayer-funded voucher route, Betsy DeVos said, “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in American to fund what is currently the need in education versus what is spent every year on education in this country.”

Trump’s $20 Billion Voucher Expansion

DeVos’ zeal for privatizing education with public tax dollars seems to fit nicely with Trump’s plan for education. He intends to come up with $20 billion in federal funds—he doesn’t identify a source—to provide vouchers for low-income K-12 students. Trump apparently wants to use those billions for block grants for 11 million students in poverty; states would decide how to distribute the money.

The New York Times’ Keven Carey wrote that $20 billion isn’t enough to cover the cost of providing vouchers to 11 million students, “which is why Mr. Trump’s proposal assumes that states will kick in another $110 billion.”

Carey cast doubt on whether Trump and DeVos could implement the federal voucher expansion as envisioned. “States don’t have that kind of money lying around,” Carey wrote. “The only plausible source is existing school funding. But even if Ms. DeVos were to find a willing governor and state legislature, it’s not that easy. Roughly half of all nonfederal education funding comes from local property taxes raised by over 13,000 local school districts. They and their elected representatives will have a say, too.”

Still, public education supporters are rightfully worried about Trump’s and DeVos’ support for vouchers.

“The federal government doesn’t have the same direct effect on education as state governments do,” said Kim Schroeder, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA). “But I believe they will try it and I believe there is going to be a nationwide fight against the privatization scheme.”

The Trump plan’s critique isn’t only coming from the left. Tea partiers also seem to be concerned about the widening reach of the federal government. After all, Trump’s $130 billion voucher program would equal roughly a quarter of the $600 billion that all government agencies combined provide for K-12 education.

“Constitutional educator” KrisAnne Hall warned on her radio show about the strings attached to this new $130 billion federal program. She told her listeners that the vouchers wouldn’t go to their families—she assumed that none of her listeners earned a low income—and that schools that accept these federally paid vouchers would have to adhere to federal rules and regulations, as well as standardized curriculum.

“If your Christian schools take these federal vouchers, these vouchers will dictate that your schools will not be able to … pray in the name of Jesus,” said the Florida-based Hall, who the Southern Poverty Law Center lists among the 998 anti-government “patriot” groups active in the U.S. “You will not be able to teach from the Bible alone. You will have to teach all religious denominations, all religious ideologies and you cannot discriminate in hiring practices based on your religious beliefs. So if you think federal vouchers are going to be funding your Christian schools, you’ve got another thing coming.”

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