Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is no stranger to scandal. From having no formal training or experience as an educator before her appointment to Trump’s cabinet and publicly advocating for the privatization of schools, to attempting to block DACA recipients from COVID relief funds and claiming premature school reopenings is “in any way dangerous,” DeVos’ toxicity knows no bounds.
The Education Secretary is part of the billionaire DeVos family. For years, the DeVos family has shared deep ties with right-wing movements, including investing in organizations working to promote voter suppression efforts, reopen rallies, and anti-worker movements across the country. The DeVos family has given thousands to anti-worker efforts across the country as a donor to the Commonwealth Foundation-connected State Policy Network, a web of dark money “think tanks” tasked with pursuing the special interests of their billionaire funders. As we’ve uncovered, DeVos’ anti-worker, right-wing advocacy has notable connections to Pennsylvania: In recent years, DeVos has made frequent trips to PA, fraternizing with Commonwealth Foundation staff and former PA Speaker Mike Turzai, and helping to fund the legislators behind PA’s Reopen movement via the DeVos-linked Students First PAC.
DeVos’ extremism is not unique amongst these billionaire-funded State Policy Network groups — rather it’s exemplary of the nature of these larger right-wing, anti-worker groups, and their insidious connection to moneyed legislative and political attacks on our most vulnerable populations. In recent months, Betsy DeVos has been making headlines with particularly vitriolic efforts:
DeVos Says “there’s nothing to suggest that kids being back in school is dangerous”
When pressed about recently released CDC guidelines on reopening schools, DeVos claimed that “there’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being back in school is dangerous to them,” and reiterated the Trump administration’s push to prematurely reopen schools in the fall, This is unsurprising coming from DeVos, who has connections to Pennsylvania’s premature reopen efforts. In the same interview, DeVos insisted that coronavirus prevention is “really a matter of paying attention to good hygiene,” to which Massachusetts Representative Ayannna Pressley said, “I wouldn’t trust you to care for a house plant, let alone my child.”
The Department of Education said they’re ‘seriously considering’ at withholding funding from schools that don’t open in the fall
Amidst a national increase in COVID-19 infection rates and with the Nation Education Association saying reopening schools in the fall is unsafe for students, educators, and communities, DeVos says that the Trump administration is “looking at very seriously” at withholding funding from schools that choose not to open in the fall. DeVos has called efforts to protect students by preventing premature school reopenings “fearmongering.”
DeVos pushes for COVID-19 relief funding to help private schools at the expense of low income students, DACA recipients
In May, the Department of Education published guidelines instructing school districts to direct more coronavirus relief aid to private schools, at the expense of public school students. The Pennsylvania Secretary of Education said that, if adhered to, this funding directive would lead to a 53% increase in benefits for “more advantaged students” at the expense of the “most disadvantaged students” in the Philadelphia school district. To make matter worse, in June, the Education Secretary Betsy DeVos doubled down on guidance that bans American higher education institutions from giving any federal coronavirus relief funds to undocumented students. American Federation of Teacher’s President Randi Weingarten said of the ruling, “in our moment of greatest need, this administration doubles down on its bigoted, anti-immigrant stance, and DeVos does the dirty work by cutting off any aid that could help our undocumented students.” DeVos and her Department of Education have routinely prioritized private education institutions, and DeVos has given millions in donations to the State Policy Network and Commonwealth Foundation. Throughout the pandemic, Commonwealth Foundation has been advocating for charter schools at the expense of working Pennsylvanians.
Amidst ongoing conversations about school reopening, DeVos meets with the State Policy Network-affiliated Federalist Society
Betsy DeVos held three meetings in July with members of the conservative Federalist Society, an anti-worker State Policy Network-connected group dedicated to “the current state of the legal order.” In addition to their SPN ties, the Federalist Society has received funding from the Kochs and the Bradley Foundation. Both the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative and Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation have been a top contributor to the Federalist Society. This is just the latest in a series of meetings between the conservative group and DeVos. In response to these scheduled meetings, the National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement, “Rather than working on a plan to reopen schools safely this fall, DeVos is holding closed-door political events for her ideological allies this week.”
DeVos overturns Obama-era rule protecting students from predatory higher education institutions
In June, it was announced that nineteen Attorneys General — including Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Josh Shapiro — are suing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for overturning a rule designed to protect students from predatory higher education institutions, many of which are for-profit colleges. The gainful employment rule implemented in 2014 worked to ensure that higher education institutions were denied access to federal aid if their graduates lacked strong career prospects and accrued heavy debt loads. This move is in line with the work of DeVos-connected groups in Pennsylvania who have been heavily promoting cyber charter schools in recent months despite the state’s lax laws on charter and cyber schools being described as the “worst” in the nation.
DeVos’ Department of Education Attacks Trans Student Athletes
According to Slate, in May, the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights “concluded an investigation into Connecticut’s inclusion of transgender student athletes in school sports consistent with their gender identity. The agency determined that the state’s policy violates Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination in education and threatened to defund the schools involved unless they exclude trans athletes.” DeVos’ Department of Education insisted that the presence of trans youth in sports competition discriminates against cisgender youth. This transphobic precedent set by the Department of Education endangers thousands of trans students across the US.
Student loan borrowers file a lawsuit against DeVos for alleged illegal wage garnishments
Under the CARES act, the US Department of Education was required to cease collection processes for defaulted student loan repayments. Unsurprisingly, just six weeks after the CARES Act the Department of Education allegedly continued to garnish the wages of some defaulted loan borrowers. The lead plaintiff in the case earned a mere $12 an hour as a health home care aid during the pandemic while the Department of Education continued to collect loan repayments, leaving her in more precarious and dire economic straits.
While the atrocious impact of Betsy DeVos may seem particularly hideous, this level of extremism is exemplary of the larger right-wing, anti-worker, billionaire-funded dark money web. DeVos is merely one example of the extreme lengths these conservative networks will go to continue to turn a profit and protect their moneyed special interests. The money and political efforts behind anti-worker movements do not exist in a silo; they are insidiously connected to other right-wing, extremist movements across the US that time and time again attack the most marginalized among us.
To learn more about the DeVos Family, the Commonwealth Foundation and their connection to the State Policy Network and extreme right-wing movements, check out our resources.