Why Ed Reform Funders Are Divided Over the DeVos Nomination

Billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad doesn't want Besty DeVos—also a billionaire philanthropist—to be confirmed as Secretary of the Education. In a letter to Senate leaders this week, Broad wrote: “With Betsy DeVos at the helm of the U.S. Department of Education, much of the good work that has been accomplished to improve public education for all of America’s children could be undone.”

Broad added: “At the risk of stating the obvious, we must have a secretary of education who believes in public education and the need to keep public schools public.”

It might seem odd that Broad, who's given millions to advance charter schools, would oppose the nomination of DeVos, who's also given heavily to advance charters, especially in Michigan.

Don't these billionaire ed reform types tend to stick together? After all, we constantly hear that they're all part of a cabal of wealthy donors dedicated to destroying public education.

Of course, that's always been a simplistic picture. Eli Broad says he's never even met Betsy DeVos, and his opposition to her nomination underscores major differences among education reform philanthropists.  

The biggest difference is that some of these donors—like Broad, Gates and the Arnolds—really are "reformers," as in people who want to improve existing public education systems. Others, like DeVos, aren't reformers as much as replacers—people who don't really believe in public education and want to see a very different system its place, with vouchers for private schools playing a key role in transitioning away from the current system. 

Seen another way, the rift here is between centrist technocrats and conservative ideologues. 

Successful business leaders like Broad and Gates believe that better management and data, along with more competition and flexibility, can dramatically improve public schools. They've given heavily for charters, but also pumped lots of money into traditional school districts. They have viewed charters not as a stepping stone to privatization, but as a way to challenge what Broad has called a "tired government monopoly" in public education that they see as resulting in low-performing institutions. 

Betsy DeVos, meanwhile, is part of a conservative Christian movement that has never been comfortable turning education over to a secular central government—and especially since prayer was banned from public schools in the early 1960s, a galvanizing moment for the Christian Right. For these folks, charters are a way to speed up God's plan for the schools. As Katherine Stewart wrote recently about DeVos in the New York Times: "At a 2001 gathering of conservative Christian philanthropists, she singled out education reform as a way to 'advance God’s kingdom.' In an interview, she and her husband, Richard DeVos Jr., said that school choice would lead to “greater kingdom gain.'"

These views are not shared by technocratic reform funders. What's more, such funders are deeply interested in having competent leadership of the existing public system, where the vast majority of kids are still educated. DeVos is unlikely to provide such leadership—since, in fact, she doesn't know much about traditional school districts. Indeed, her nomination hearings revealed a stunning lack of knowledge about key issues she would be dealing with as secretary of education. That's not okay with Broad, who was obsessed with improving school leadership and management well before he started giving big for charters. 

One last point: Some charter advocates are also uneasy with Betsy DeVos, or opposed to her nomination, because she confirms the worst possible fears of charter critics: that such schools advance the far-right agenda of wealthy donors and that they're not accountable to the public. The Massachusetts Charter Public School Association has come out strongly against DeVos’ nomination, citing the lack of accountability of charter school standards in Michigan, where DeVos helped engineer sweeping reforms. 

So far, Eli Broad is the only major education philanthropist who has spoken up publicly against DeVos (that I know of). But don't be surprised if others start coming forward. Plenty of people think along the same lines as Broad.