Education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos wasn’t a vocal supporter of Donald Trump during his bid for the White House. But with Vice President–elect Mike Pence on Team Trump, DeVos wasn’t a terribly surprising pick.
For decades, DeVos has encouraged states to implement school-choice programs and shelled out money to help them do it. That includes Indiana, where Pence, as governor, pursued many of the choice initiatives supported by the Republican power broker and by the American Federation for Children, which she founded and chairs.
DeVos’s involvement in the education reform movement dates back decades. She and her husband, Dick, played a key role in 1993 in getting the state of Michigan to pass its first charter school law. In 2010, she founded the federation to lobby in states around the country for voucher programs that enable low-income students to pay for private school with tax dollars.
Pence was a strong proponent of school vouchers when he served in the House of Representatives from 2001 to 2013, supporting the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program — the only federally funded school voucher system in the nation.
He brought that commitment to vouchers home when he became governor of Indiana in 2013, pushing to dramatically expand the program for low- and middle-income families, in both funding and eligibility. By 2016, Indiana had the largest school voucher system in the country, with more than 30,000 students participating in the program to attend private and religious schools. About 60 percent of Indiana students qualify for the state dollars, which average about $4,000 apiece per year. Research on how vouchers affect student outcomes, including in Indiana, is mixed.
Pence also created a $50 million low-interest-loan program to promote charter school expansion in Indiana and approved rules to prevent low-performing charters from escaping closure or skirting accountability.
An early adopter of the Common Core, Indiana in 2014 became the first state to drop the standards in favor of new benchmarks for grades K-12. States’ rights advocates and right-wing activists opposed the standards on the grounds that they had been drawn up without sufficient local input. The replacement standards, however, drew criticism from the opponents, who argued that they closely resembled the Common Core and were simply a “rebranded” version.
On Wednesday, after her nomination was announced, DeVos tweeted that she is not a supporter of the Common Core and wrote on her website that the standards had become a “federalized boondoggle.” However, she does serve on Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelInEd), an education-reform group that promotes the state standards.
When Trump announced Pence as his running mate in July, DeVos and the federation were quick to offer praise, calling Pence a “longtime champion for educational choice” who has a “proven record of accomplishment when it comes to advancing educational choice and innovation.” Earlier this month, he shared a table at a Republican Governors Association event with DeVos, who previously served as a Republican national committeewoman and as chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party.
In 2013, Pence was the keynote speaker at the AFC’s National Policy Summit. He said in his address that he supported school choice “before it was cool” and that options like charters and vouchers are “the right idea because parents want it, students’ futures depend on it, the market demands it.”
Leading up to the event, DeVos called Pence “one of the most vocal and committed advocates in the fight to provide all children with the opportunity to receive a better education through educational options.”
In his keynote, Pence spoke about a 2013 Indiana Supreme Court decision that upheld the state’s voucher program, which then-Gov. Mitch Daniels had signed into law in 2011. Pence called the court’s verdict, which ruled that the voucher system did not violate a state constitutional prohibition on public funding for religious programs, the “largest victory for school choice in the history of our state.”
The Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation provides funding to The 74, and the site’s Editor-in-Chief, Campbell Brown, sits on the American Federation for Children’s board of directors, which was formerly chaired by Betsy DeVos. Brown played no part in the reporting or editing of this article. The American Federation for Children also sponsored The 74’s 2015 New Hampshire education summit.
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