People in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who know Betsy DeVos are confused by who she is in Washington, D.C., while serving as President Trump’s education secretary. They know her at home as someone pragmatic and generous, even by people who don’t like her politics and misguided belief in charter schools. How they see her as education secretary is someone who is tone-deaf, insulated, and not up for the job.
She was born Betsy Prince. Born in 1958, her family was wealthy and conservative. She was raised in Holland, Michigan, where her family was in the Christian Reformed Church. She studied at Calvin College which is a private Christian school located in Grand Rapids. She then married Dick DeVos, whose father co-founded Amway and is also from a very wealthy family.
Betsy and Dick DeVos give money to conservative politicians and causes. Her major cause is expanding the number of charter schools in the United States. She wants families to be able to use vouchers so that students can use public funds to attend private, usually religious, schools.
Her views on charter schools aren’t that surprising given she grew up in a community with ties to the Netherlands. In the late 1800s, politicians in this country debated public education, with liberals arguing that public money shouldn’t be given to private religious schools. Conservatives disagreed with this and came up with the concept of school choice and charter schools.
In the United States, critics see the use of public money in charter schools as a violation of the separation of church and state. People who advocate for these schools, like Betsy DeVos, say it’s a matter of equal treatment. All secular and religious schools should be treated the same. In their minds, this makes the idea of church-state separation and publicly funding religious schools compatible.
The Netherlands, though, requires a national curriculum and that all teachers meet training requirements. As a Republican, Betsy DeVos opposes regulations as a matter of course. Many other school-choice supporters want families to have a choice but they also want all schools strictly monitored so they meet high educational standards.
Professor Thomas Pedroni teaches at Detroit’s Wayne State University. He says that the policies Betsy DeVos advocates for have harmed public education. He’s hoping that her divisiveness as education secretary will drive a wedge between advocates for charter schools. He points out that charter schools are funded by the public but operate privately. Additionally, 80% of the time it is a for-profit company that operates a private school.
One of her supporters, Gary Naeyeart, said that Betsy DeVos hasn’t caused any problems in how Michigan schools teach students. He sees the main problem as an eroding sense of community. He points out that the DeVos family has built many cultural institutions in Grand Rapids such as the DeVos Performance Hall. He said, as someone that knows her, that she is a genuine and down-to-earth person who just happens to be a billionaire. He thinks people should pay attention to what she does, not what they worry she will do.
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