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By selecting Betsy DeVos to become the next secretary of education, President-elect Donald J. Trump has signaled his commitment to an ambitious plan to reform elementary and secondary education. But after a campaign during which Mr. Trump offered few details on higher education, the pick does little to clarify his vision for that sector.
Ms. DeVos, 58, is a leading player in the national school-choice movement. As chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, she has advocated aggressively for the expansion of charter schools and voucher programs for low-income students. She has served on the boards of several other organizations that have supported school choice, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Great Lakes Education Project, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which was established in 2007 by Jeb Bush, one of Mr. Trump’s foes in the Republican primary.
A Michigan native who served two stints as chairwoman of the state’s Republican Party, Ms. DeVos is known also for her philanthropy and support of conservative causes. The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation — which she runs with her husband, Dick DeVos — has been a reliable donor both to community projects and to national think tanks and research groups. (Mr. DeVos, a Republican, failed in a 2006 bid to become governor of Michigan.)
In fact, Ms. DeVos belongs to two families that have played a transformative role in Michigan’s politics and economic development. Dick DeVos’s father, Richard M. DeVos, Sr., amassed his fortune as a co-founder of the direct-selling company Amway. Betsy DeVos’s father, Edgar Prince, was the founder of the Prince Corporation, an automobile-parts manufacturer. Both family names now adorn buildings at Ms. DeVos’s alma mater, Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Mich., where she studied business administration and political science.
Doug Koopman, a professor of political science at Calvin, said Ms. DeVos’s political views tend to fall in line with those of moderate, business-minded conservatives like Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.
As leader of the state’s Republican Party, she built up the organization by improving technology and financing, and by bringing on a professional staff, according to Mr. Koopman. “She was focused on the nuts and bolts of how to win an election,” he said.
Ms. DeVos’s lack of a track record in higher education is by no means unusual. Several Department of Education leaders — including Arne Duncan, President Obama’s choice for the post, and the late Shirley M. Hufstedler, who became the first education secretary under President Jimmy Carter — had no professional experience in the sector.
But it’s hard to find evidence of Ms. DeVos having taken any positions on higher-ed policy. Neal McCluskey, director of the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, put it bluntly in an analysis of her nomination: “I have no idea where DeVos stands on early-childhood or higher-education issues, and the latter, especially, is gigantic.”
“DeVos will essentially be taking over a hugely bureaucratic lending company — with lots of regulatory power — that on a day-to-day basis could prove to be a far greater burden than she expected,” Mr. McCluskey wrote.
Where to look for clues on her higher-ed priorities? Many observers are turning to her philanthropic record and her longtime advocacy for school choice. Here’s what we know about the new nominee:
‘An Education-Reform Warrior’
Margaret Spellings, president of the University of North Carolina system, considers Ms. DeVos a friend. Ms. Spellings, who was secretary of education from 2005 to 2009, said the two had worked together on education issues while Ms. Spellings was president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, from 2013 until this March.
“She’s been an education-reform warrior and has put her money where her mouth is, literally and figuratively, for a very long time,” Ms. Spellings said.
Mr. Spellings said she isn’t sure where Ms. DeVos stands on higher-education policy, but she suggested a couple of goals that the new secretary might prioritize — streamlining pathways from secondary to postsecondary education and supporting community colleges.
John M. Engler, a former Republican governor of Michigan who is now president of the Business Roundtable, an association of corporate leaders, praised the selection of a woman he has known for 40 years as “an inspired choice.”
“She’ll be a very able advocate for the proposition that in the 21st century you can’t have children in schools that aren’t performing,” he said. Asked what that stance might signify for postsecondary policy, Mr. Engler hazarded some guesses: a focus on transparency and performance, an emphasis on work-force development, and a defense of free speech on campuses.
“I think Betsy will be very strong in that area,” he said. “She’s not going to be imposing litmus tests on higher education.”
But Ms. DeVos’s nomination also met with some sharp criticism from both the left, where some see her as an opponent of public schools, and the right, where her stance on Common Core standards has come under scrutiny. Donald E. Heller, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of San Francisco, wrote on Twitter that Mr. Trump’s pick “could have been worse. But not much.”
In an interview, Mr. Heller, who was previously dean of the College of Education at Michigan State University, said that his main concerns stem from watching Ms. DeVos wield her influence, financially and otherwise, on Michigan’s primary- and secondary-education system. Her support for school choice — much of it realized through the Great Lakes Education Project, which she and her husband founded — has been felt across the state, including in Detroit, where critics have decried the share of students in underperforming charter schools.
Others have taken issue with the fact that Ms. DeVos has never before worked in a school system or at a college. But “one advantage she brings, to be fair, is that she’s very involved in the political process and policy,” Mr. Heller said.
Mr. Heller takes Ms. DeVos’s support for charter schools and privatization in education as a suggestion that she will be much friendlier to for-profit colleges than the Obama administration has been. He doubted, for example, that she would enforce the contentious gainful-employment rule, which seeks to evaluate career-oriented programs — many of which are run by for-profit companies — based on their graduates’ debt-to-earnings ratios.
And her past work with faith-based organizations could offer additional clues about her approach to postsecondary education, Mr. Heller said. “She may push for federal funding that would make its way more toward private and religious institutions at the expense of public institutions,” he said.
Autonomy vs. Accountability
Ms. DeVos’s positions on vouchers and expanding access to charter schools do not automatically make her an enemy of federal support for higher education.
Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education-reform group, said that advocates of school choice and charters often look to the Pell Grant program as a model. After all, that program is essentially a voucher program for low-income students. (“Should Pell Grants be allowed to be spent on remedial education?” asked Mr. Petrilli in an essay outlining “20 Questions for Betsy DeVos.”)
Frederick M. Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where Ms. DeVos is a board member, also noted that advocates of voucher and school-choice plans view Pell grants as a model. It’s unclear whether Ms. DeVos would consider changing Pell Grant restrictions, he said.
Mr. Hess called Ms. DeVos a “principled conservative.” He said he does not foresee her advocating for ideas that have gained traction in President Obama’s Education Department, like student-loan forgiveness and free college, especially with a Republican-dominated Congress.
David Hecker, president of the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, argued that an Education Department led by Ms. DeVos would “undermine” education. It could restrict access to Pell Grants or make them less generous, he said: “Things don’t look good at all for the people most in need.”
Ultimately, the most important question about Ms. DeVos’s vision may be the hardest to answer, even for her: How will she use the Education Department to hold higher education accountable for student outcomes, as President Obama’s education secretaries have done?
Mr. Petrilli expects Ms. DeVos to think very differently about accountability for institutions that receive federal student aid. “She will want to go after all schools that are harming students, not just for-profits,” he said. “Most mainstream conservatives were aghast at the Obama administration’s treatment of the for-profit colleges,” he said.
Beyond that, however, it’s hard to get a read on Ms. DeVos’s oversight strategy, according to Mr. Petrilli. “I don’t know how much she’s thought about these issues,” he said.
Susan Dynarski, a professor of education, public policy, and economics at the University of Michigan, argued on Twitter that the selection of Ms. DeVos signals an imbalance between two necessary but competing forces — autonomy and accountability. Too little autonomy stifles innovation, Ms. Dynarski wrote. Too little accountability leads to the proliferation of bad actors who take advantage of students.
“I worry, a LOT, that this administration is going to scale back much-needed oversight” of postsecondary education, “especially the for-profit sector,” she tweeted. “If for-profit colleges are left to regulate themselves, we will see ballooning debt, ballooning defaults, and students’ lives ruined.”
Ms. Devos’s online remarks about Common Core standards offer a possible glimpse of her view on federal agenda-setting for education. “Have organizations that I have been a part of supported Common Core? Of course,” she wrote. “However, along the way, it got turned into a federalized boondoggle.”
But on Wednesday, she left no room for misunderstanding about her opinion of the standards:
Many of you are asking about Common Core. To clarify, I am not a supporter—period. Read my full stance, here: https://t.co/qB2nAXvX0B
— Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVos) November 23, 2016
A Philanthropic Trail
Over decades in local and national politics, the DeVos and Prince families have left a conservative policy imprint on other matters that have touched education. Betsy and Dick DeVos lobbied for Michigan’s “right to work” laws, passed in 2013, which posed a financial threat to unions by making the payment of dues voluntary. Such laws, now adopted in more than 20 states, have been seen as particularly damaging to faculty unions in some cases.
In addition to its local economic-development grants, the DeVos Foundation has been a reliable donor to conservative-leaning think tanks and research groups, including the Mackinac Center and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. Between 2010 and 2013, the foundation made four donations, totaling $25,000, to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a watchdog group that pursues cases in defense of free speech on college campuses. (The foundation also gave $20,000 to the Clinton Global Initiative in 2012.)
And in 2013, the foundation awarded nearly $500,000 to colleges and universities, including $50,000 in gifts to Princeton University, Rollins College, and the Compass College of Cinematic Arts, a $100,000 gift to Ferris State University, and a $200,000 donation to Northwood University, Mr. Devos’s alma mater.
As news of her nomination spread, observers pointed out donations by the DeVos and Prince families to anti-abortion and anti-gay-marriage causes. But Mr. Koopman, of Calvin College, argued that Ms. DeVos is “not a movement conservative,” meaning she has not aligned herself with either the Tea Party or evangelical Christian factions of the Republican Party.
“She has a large enough global perspective; she’s not the parochial Midwesterner one might think.” Mr. Koopman said. “The key to understanding her is the belief that choices bring out the best in people.”
Dan Bauman contributed to this article.