As President-Elect Donald Trump continues to consider candidates for his cabinet, one who has already been chosen has influenced Michigan politics more than any other person in the state with the help of her family, and public school advocates say she threatens the foundations of the state and nation’s public school system.
Last month, Trump chose Betsy DeVos to run the Department of Education, something many experts say is a clear attempt to further privatize education by expanding the use of charter schools and the voucher system, something Betsy DeVos and her family have contributed financially to for the last 20 years.
The family has combined to make about $14 million in political contributions in the last two years alone, according to Secretary of State data.
“Their money has impacted numerous pieces of legislation in the House and Senate,” said Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which tracks political money throughout the state.
“It’s obvious they wield a ton of power in not only Michigan politics but throughout the country.”
Mauger said the family’s giving in the state outnumbered the combined fundraising of the main state PACs for the United Auto Workers, the Michigan Education Association and the Michigan Association for Justice over that time period.
“This isn’t new,” said Ian Vandewalker, who serves as counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “But now with a DeVos as the education secretary, we have to wonder about conflicts of interest.”
Vandewalker said the family’s contributions to Republicans and to charter school initiatives show that she has connections across the nation.
The family has given at least $7,000 directly to the campaigns of 30 of the 63 Republicans who will serve in the Michigan House next session, according to data from Mauger.
And they’ve given heavily to groups that help elect Republicans, such as the House Republican Campaign Committee in Michigan, where they gave $720,000; the Republican National Committee where they gave $1.8 million and the national Senate Leadership Fund, which received $1 million, according to finance data.
State laws regulate how much a person can give to political PACs and candidates, but with the DeVos family having numerous members giving money, they are able to make the most of these rules and flood money into Republican PACs and candidates.
In Michigan House races, nine different family members gave the maximum $1,000 each to candidates, combining for $9,000 for each candidate, Mauger said. Thirty-two state House candidates received that amount from DeVos family members this cycle.
The DeVos family also gave half a million dollars to the Great Lakes Education Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for school of choice.
This money going to Republican legislators worries education experts who say Republicans tend to support policies that take resources from public school systems and instead help charter schools.
“When we look at where her money has gone in the past, we can say with near certainty her policies will reflect that agenda,” said Gary Miron, an education expert who specializes in urban school reform.
It’s not a new tale, Miron said: If you have the money to help candidates win their elections, you have the influence to push your agenda. In the DeVos’ case, it’s a charter school agenda and a push toward privatization, which he said only works to hamper education for the poorest people.
Miron pointed to charter schools in Detroit with low test scores and high dropout rates as evidence that charter schools don’t help cities’ most vulnerable and said those same schools are a vehicle for accelerating segregation within schools.
Miron mentioned Hope Academy in Detroit, which had its charter renewed in 2015. The school’s test scores in 2013 were ranked in the bottom percentile for academic performance.
But it isn’t just the scores that experts have problems with.
“Most of these schools have a homogeneous population,” Miron said. “It tends to generally be white, able-bodied people.”
This segregation of students will hamper their ability to be empathetic toward people of different backgrounds, he said, and this could contribute to an environment where students become more divided.
The state has to be vigilant toward how education changes in the coming years, Miron said, as the country might have someone heading the Department of Education who thinks very differently about public schools and how they should run.
The privatization of schooling creates winners and losers, said Miron, who has researched the use of charter schools in and around the state of Michigan.
When you create a school that is run by a company, the students who can afford to attend will become the winners and the students left in public school, from which resources are being taken, will become the losers, he said.
What will not change is the need for a strong public school system, said Jerome Johnston, an education expert from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.
“No matter what you think of charter schools, it can’t replace our public school system,” he said. “Those need to be the foundation of our educational system in America.”