DeVos and a Controversy over Public Education

Students learn about and consider arguments for and against the appointment of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos through a quick quiz, student reading, small group work and discussion.  


To the Teacher:

This lesson includes a student reading and small group activities focusing on Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration’s Secretary of Education, and education reform. You may want to print out in advance:

Begin by asking students to take a short quiz.



1.  What does the U.S. Department of Education do?

a) Provides educational services for the children of senators, representatives and members of the Supreme Court

b) Provides most of the funding for K-12 schools

c) Gives grants to states and local school districts to support programs that are aligned with federal policy

d) Writes rules of conduct for grades 6, 7 and 8

e) Runs all public schools and two-year colleges

Answer: C. The federal Department of Education (ED) provides grants and other support for schools that are aligned with federal policy. The federal government also enforces civil rights laws in public schools to ensure that they do not discriminate and provide equal access to education. Most of the funding for public schools comes from state and local governments, and public schools are operated by local school districts.


2.  Advocates for "school choice" support a variety of ways of channeling tax dollars to support private education.  One way is by providing school vouchers.  What is a school voucher?

a) A certificate signed by the governor of a state affirming that a school is properly credentialed

b) A government allotment to families that can be used to pay for private school tuition

c) The system by which public school teachers teach one class a day in a private school

d) A full course meal delivered daily to non-profit charter schools

Answer: B. A voucher is an allotment of money from the government that families can use to send their children to a private school.


3.  Another policy supported by school choice advocates is using public money to support charter schools.  What is a charter school

a) Any school that is not publicly funded

b)  A school that is funded by the government but run independently.

c) A school which specializes in writing contracts, by-laws and charters.

d) A school affiliated with a specific religion

e) All of the above

Answer:  B. A charter school is a school that is funded by the government but managed independently. Generally this means that the charter school (or group of charter schools) has more flexibility over things like the curriculum, personnel and budget.

4. The Secretary of Education becomes president when which of the following occurs:

a) The president dies

b) The president dies on school property

c) The president dies and 15 other congressional leaders and cabinet members are also unable to take over

d) When there is an educational emergency

e) Never, ever

Answer: C.

Next, ask students read the following. (See this this pdf version of the reading.)



Student Reading:
The Department of Education, DeVos & Education Reform

The Department of Education

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) does not build or run or directly control schools or colleges. Nor does it provide most of the funds for K-12 public education - that is the job of state governments. What the ED does do is administer a large array of programs aimed at improving schools. The department does give grants to states and local school districts for specific programs that advance the goals and policies set by the leadership of the department and ultimately by the President.  

For instance, President Obama’s $4 billion Race to the Top initiative rewarded state education systems that put a priority on teacher assessments, that accepted charter schools, and that had a sizable low-income student population. The initiative gave school systems, many of them cash-starved, a financial incentive to adopt the policies the administration was advocating.

Betsy DeVos

On February 7, 2017, Betsy DeVos was sworn in as President Trump’s secretary of education. She had been confirmed by the Senate earlier that day by the narrowest possible margin, with Vice President Mike Pence casting a tiebreaking vote - the first time that a vice president’s tiebreaker was needed to confirm a Cabinet secretary.

DeVos’s nomination was extremely controversial. Much of the debate centered on DeVos’s level of knowledge and experience and on her stances on education policy, including her support for "school choice."

Betsy DeVos is a well-known name in Michigan. She chaired the state Republican Party, chaired an investment firm, and led several education reform organizations. DeVos grew up in a billionaire family and married into another billionaire family. Her brother, Erik Prince, is founder of Blackwater—a firm that supplied mercenaries and security guards for conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. Her husband is the heir to the Amway fortune.

The family has contributed over a billion dollars to a variety of causes, including the Republican Party, and organizations that support education reform.  Betsy DeVos has been a leader in the campaign to use public funds to support private schools and charter schools. She has founded and led national organizations that lobby for reform legislation and support school choice candidates for office. She and the DeVos family have contributed tens of millions of dollars to fund these organizations, Christian schools and think tanks. Opponents to her nomination were concerned that public education will suffer under an Education Department devoted to privatization.

Education Reform

What is the "education reform" that DeVos supports? 

While education reform has taken on different meanings over time, the current movement for reform supports policies including:

  • "High stakes" testing. That is, using students’ standardized test scores to determine punishments (such as sanctions, penalties, or funding cuts for schools or educators), advancement (such as student grade promotion or graduation), or compensation (salary increases or bonuses for educators).
  • Assessing teachers and using those assessments to reward or sanction them.
  • "School choice" - that is, using public money to support private schools or independently run schools through various funding mechanisms. This can include vouchers and charter schools.


Small-group Activity

Give students this this pdf of quotes (the quotes also appear at the bottom of this lesson) related to Betsy DeVos’s appointment as Secretary of Education. Some of those quoted speak in support of the DeVos nomination; others speak in opposition.

Next, ask students to break into small groups. Ask each group to fill out this pdf chart based on the quotes, the reading, or other information they have. (Alternatively, have each group draw the chart on a piece of chart paper and fill that in.)  

Give students time to complete the chart, perhaps 15 minutes. While they are working, reconstruct the chart on the board.  

Classroom Discussion

When the small groups are ready, reconvene the class. Ask each group to share from their list, and add their contributions to your chart. Discuss the issues as they come up, and clarify any misconceptions.  Make a list of questions for further research, if necessary.  

Once you’ve completed the chart, discuss the DeVos debate with students, asking questions such as:
  • What issues are most compelling to you?
  • The National Review asserts that school choice is a "better-performing alternative" to public schools, while Diane Ravitch asserts that charter schools and vouchers are not only undermining public schools, but that they are not better performing.  Which argument do you find more persuasive?  What evidence might establish the accuracy of either assertion?
  • How might charter schools and vouchers undermine public schools?
  • Jeb Bush asserts that more local control of schools is a positive. What do you think might be positive about greater local control of schools? What might be negative about it?
  • The New York Times editorial argues that DeVos’s personal lack of experience is an important concern. Do you agree?  What about her family’s contributions and financial connections?
  • Of the quotes we read, what stood out for you the most? Why?
  • What statements from the quotes do you think are questionable? How might you investigate the accuracy of these statements?
  • How do you think the debate over school choice is relevant to our school?



Optional Homework

Ask students to choose one controversy over school choice or Betsy DeVos’ nomination. Research that controversy, including multiple points of view on it.  Then write a 5-paragraph essay that argues for your own position on this issue. It should include:

  • A summary of the issue and your thesis.
  • Three points in support of your thesis, with evidence.
  • A concluding paragraph.



Quotes about the DeVos Nomination 

1. The National Review supported the DeVos nomination. In an editorial, the conservative publication condemned the size and scope of the ED and applauded the idea of school choice. The editorial noted a slippage in reading and math scores in  2015 (as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress), and argued that this shows that the recent education initiatives have not worked. They also pointed to the success of DeVos' American Federation for Children in helping to elect reform-minded candidates.

DeVos has long been bullish about the prospects for school choice in its many forms, observing that the ineffectiveness of the public-school monopoly, often ruled by thuggish teachers’ unions, has become obvious. It’s part of the reason that Congress passed and President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act last December, the most sweeping education-reform bill since No Child Left Behind, and the most significant deregulation of American education in recent memory — now in need of a secretary who will enforce its terms.

Meanwhile, school choice — a term, she has said, that ought to encompass everything from "vouchers and tax credits [to] virtual schools, magnet schools, homeschooling, and charter schools" — is taking root as a viable, and better-performing, alternative. As education secretary, DeVos will be in the ideal position to roll back the mess of federal regulations that have hamstrung teachers and kept students in failing schools, to restore to states a measure of power over their own education systems, and to help make the government a resource for, not an impediment to, student success. Conservatives opposed to another four years of top-down meddling in the nation’s classrooms should applaud this principled choice.


2.  Diane Ravitch, and author and historian of American education and a best-selling author, writes in In these Times that DeVos and Prince families "have contributed generously to anti-gay and anti-labor causes over the years, but Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick, have shown a special passion for privatizing public education." Ravitch, who has written extensively about education reform, argues against DeVos’s deep support for "school choice."

School choice advocates seldom mention that every dollar allocated to vouchers or charters is a dollar subtracted from public schools, which are compelled to lay off teachers, increase class sizes and cut programs in response. Meanwhile, voluminous research on charters shows that they do not necessarily offer better quality education. Even those schools that get high test scores often achieve this by cherry-picking new students and culling existing ones through high attrition rates. Vouchers, meanwhile, help prop up religious schools that teach creationism and employ few, if any, certified teachers.

The DeVoses and their foundations have spent millions nationwide to elect pro-school choice candidates to school boards, state legislatures and Congress. Anyone who wants to understand the failure of the school choice movement should look to Michigan. Charter schools were first authorized in the state in 1993. In 2014, a year-long investigation by the Detroit Free Press concluded that the state was spending $1 billion annually on charters that performed poorly, and were neither accountable nor transparent. Today, 80 percent of the state’s approximately 300 charter schools are operated by for-profit management. Since the onset of school choice, Michigan’s performance on national tests has steadily declined.


3. Former presidential candidate Jeb Bush  was enthusiastic about DeVos' appointment. Writing in USA Today, Bush reiterated the anti-big government positions he took in his campaign. He also condemned teachers unions, and opined that school choice benefits lower income children.

While the vast majority of K-12 spending is done by state and local governments, the bulging layers of bureaucracy that administer education policy are the direct result of federal overreach into our education system. As a result, too many education dollars are wasted on bureaucrats and administrators instead of being driven down into the classroom where they could make a bigger impact on learning.       

Instead of defending and increasing Washington’s power, Betsy will cut federal red tape       and be a passionate advocate for state and local control of schools. More importantly, she will empower parents with greater choices and a stronger voice over their children’s education. In the two decades that I have been actively involved in education reform, I have worked side-by-side with Betsy to promote school choice and put the interests of students first. I know her commitment to children, especially at-risk kids, is genuine and deep.

4. The New York Times editorialized against DeVos’s nomination. The editors noted her record in Michigan to stop legislation designed to hold charter schools accountable. They also noted her reluctance in the hearings to support Education Department efforts to prevent fraud by for-profit colleges.

"Government really sucks." This belief, expressed by the just-confirmed education secretary, Betsy DeVos, in a 2015 speech to educators, may be the only qualification she         needed for President Trump.

Ms. DeVos is the perfect cabinet member for a president determined to appoint officials eager to destroy the agencies they run and weigh the fate of policies and programs based on ideological considerations.

She has never run, taught in, attended or sent a child to an American public school, and        her confirmation hearings laid bare her ignorance of education policy and scorn for             public education itself. She has donated millions to, and helped direct, groups that want to replace traditional public schools with charter schools and convert taxpayer dollars into vouchers to help parents send children to private and religious schools.