President-elect Donald Trump tapped Michigan billionaire and charter-school advocate Betsy DeVos as his choice for education secretary Wednesday, a move that has prompted a flurry of praise and backlash from either political side throughout the week.
DeVos, a fierce proponent of school vouchers allowing students to use public funds to attend private schools, heads up the nonprofit American Federation for Children and is the former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party.
She has been active in politics for almost 40 years, since she first began volunteering for President Gerald Ford in 1976, and has since served on the Republican National Committee, the Alliance for School Choice, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
Trump, who supports vouchers and charter schools, called DeVos a “brilliant and passionate education advocate.”
DeVos is still a relatively unknown name at the national level, but she has become a prominent and polarising figure in Michigan, where she fought for years against charter-school regulation.
She helped pass the state’s charter-school law in 1993, and she later funded a failed ballot initiative in 2000 that would have enshrined a right to vouchers in the state’s constitution. Her advocacy has made her appointment a lightning rod for Democrats, while Republicans who opposed Trump’s candidacy, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have heaped praise on the move.
The Michigan Democratic Party released a statement calling DeVos a “dangerous and ill-advised pick” and an “anti-public education activist,” accusing her of attacking the state’s public-school system and its teachers for the sake of profits of investors in charter schools.
“Here is someone, in Betsy DeVos, who has made it her life’s work to channel her family’s massive wealth toward destroying Michigan’s public education system,” the party said in a statement.
I am honored to work with the President-elect on his vision to make American education great again. The status quo in ed is not acceptable.
— Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVos) November 23, 2016
The Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also released a statement calling her school-vouchers advocacy “misguided” and urging the Senate to consider her record before confirming her.
“She has ardently supported the unlimited, unregulated growth of charter schools in Michigan, elevating for-profit schools with no consideration of the severe harm done to traditional public schools,” wrote the chapter’s executive director, Kary Moss.
Teachers unions across the country, too, have been highly critical of DeVos, arguing that despite her years advocating for charter schools and vouchers, she lacks firsthand experience working in or with public schools and sends her own children to private schools.
The head of the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s largest teachers’ union, decried DeVos in a statement on Wednesday, calling her “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee” since the creation of the Department of Education.
“In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America,” president Randi Weingarten wrote.
The National Education Association, too, blasted DeVos for lobbying for school vouchers and pushing for private school funding at taxpayers’ expense.
“She has consistently pushed a corporate agenda to privatize, de-professionalize and impose cookie-cutter solutions to public education,” president Lily Eskelsen Garcia said in a statement.
DeVos has, however, won the praise of her fellow school-choice advocates, such as Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who called her an “excellent choice,” and Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who hailed her selection as a victory for “educational freedom.”
“(DeVos) has made a career out of standing up to powerful and connected special interests on behalf of poor kids who are too often forgotten by Washington,” Sasse, a fervent critic of Trump along the campaign trail, wrote in a statement posted on Facebook..
The president of the National Charter Schools Institute had kind words for her, as well, calling her a “bold pick.”
“She has been an outspoken advocate for years for school choice and charter schools and challenging the status quo,” James Goenner told the Wall Street Journal.
But DeVos has also attracted criticism from some conservatives due to her association with organisations that have supported the Common Core education standards. The website Breitbart, which was fervently supportive of Trump’s candidacy, blared in a headline: “Donald Trump Announces Pro-Common Core Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary.”
DeVos has since disavowed the standards in a statement and on social media.
“I am not a supporter — period,” she tweeted Wednesday.