A Donor Goes to Washington: The Philanthropy of Betsy DeVos

The selection of Betsy DeVos for secretary of education by President-elect Donald Trump has set off a firestorm of criticism among public education advocates. A billionaire Republican Party donor, school choice activist, and philanthropist, DeVos has been criticized for her advocacy of public funding for private religious schools, as well as her role in orchestrating changes in Detroit's education system that led to "the biggest school reform disaster in the country," as one critic put it. If confirmed by the Senate, she would succeed John King, who has served as secretary of education since March of 2016.

DeVos and her husband Dick chair the Windquest Group, a company that invests in technology, manufacturing and clean energy. Dick DeVos is a former president of Amway, the direct marketing firm that was founded by his father and which built the DeVos family fortune.

As we've written before, DeVos family philanthropy is extensive and goes back decades. The DeVoses rank right up there with the Kochs as among the most influential conservative funders over recent decades, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into an array of think tanks, legal groups, leadership institutes, and more. They've given money both nationally and in the state of Michigan, and it has been paralleled by extensive political giving for election-related efforts. By one estimate, the family has given some $44 million in political donations in Michigan alone. Like today's most savvy ideological funders on both left and right, the DeVos family has pulled all the levers of power afforded to the wealthy. (See our analysis here about philanthropy fits into this holistic approach to influence spending.) 

Betsy DeVos’ own philanthropic activities include co-chairing with her husband the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the couple's home. The foundation’s giving includes a strong record of support for school choice in Michigan. The foundation supports the West Michigan Aviation Academy, a charter high school with an aviation theme that is housed at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids. Dick DeVos founded the school in 2010. The DeVos Family Foundation also supports two private Christian schools operated by Potter’s House and provides significant funding to the Education Freedom Fund, which provides scholarships for needy children to attend private schools.

Other recipients of DeVos Foundation funding provide additional insight into Betsy DeVos’ education views and how they could inform policy actions she could undertake as the nation's top school official. The DeVos Family Foundation has supported the American Federation for Children (AFC) and the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE). Betsy DeVos chairs the AFC, a 501(c)(4) whose board of directors also includes former Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and former news anchor Campbell Brown, founder of the education news website The Seventy Four. AFC is also affiliated with the Alliance for School Choice, which has been heavily supported by Walton Foundation over the years, with grants totaling over $20 million. In addition, AFC is closely allied with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and a network of conservative think-tanks and school choice advocacy organizations.  

DeVos' efforts in recent years exemplify how top school donors have combined philanthropic and political giving to press their agenda. 

DeVos also serves on the board of FEE, the education think tank founded by former Florida Governor and unsuccessful GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush. Other directors of FEE include Charles Schwab, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York City public schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

FEE receives support from a who’s who of reform-minded education funders, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, Broad Foundation, Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, and Carnegie Corporation of New York. FEE’s activities include support of school choice through charter schools, but also supporting the Common Core State Standards.

DeVos’ involvement with FEE may undermine her stated opposition to the Common Core. During the presidential campaign, Trump called the Common Core a disaster and vowed to end the standards, something he cannot actually do as president. The standards were adopted by states, albeit with some financial incentives offered by the Obama administration. Further, the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) prohibits the secretary of education from interfering with states’ curriculum or academic standards.

The DeVos Family Foundation’s giving is not limited to school choice giving. The funder also supports health care and the arts. It is a major supporter of ArtPrize, an annual art competition held in Grand Rapids. The DeVoses also support the pediatric oncology at the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. Helen DeVos is Betsy DeVos’ mother-in-law.

To be sure, there is much for education reform advocates and funders to like about Trump’s appointee for secretary of education. The question is how much impact she will have in the role, given ESSA’s move toward returning much educational decision-making to states. What is certain is that nonprofits and funders who want to continue the growth of charter schools and other forms of school choice will have an ally in Betsy DeVos.

RelatedSchool Choice, But Much More: Making Sense of DeVos Family Philanthropy