Monday, May 29, 2017

What the family billions bought Betsy DeVos

Betsy DeVos took the Jared Kushner route to a prominent place in America's life. She married into it.

She did it by betrothing billionaire ($5.5 billion net worth) Dick DeVos, whose father founded Amway. Dick got his turn as CEO. It's the American way. So is buying influence with lawmakers.

Over the years, the DeVos family has spent an estimated $200 million ingratiating itself with lawmakers and, of late, at least one orange-haired presidential candidate, who chose Betsy to be on his secretary of education.

It was no great surprise that the Senate (by a one-vote margin that required Vice President Pence's tie-breaking vote) awarded her the tiara she desired. After all, majority Republicans owed her a great sum.

"Great" may understate. The family spent nearly $1 million on current senators alone. Sen. Marco Rubio, for one, received $98,300. Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner got $49,800.

In the presidential campaign, Trump supporters heard, "Drain the swamp." Meanwhile, big GOP contributors like Betsy DeVos heard, "Buy this swamp and build condos on it."

So, just what can one buy with a five-year spree of $5.3 million in political contributions? In the case of Betsy DeVos, it's the keys to your public school.

It's all very heady -- quite a trophy for a person who, like many of her ideological kin, doesn't really buy into the whole concept of public schools.

In a hearing process that revealed almost no qualifications to set public education policy, we were told that her chief asset was that she "cares for children."

Now here she comes advising about what's best: $10.6 billion in cuts -- less money for poor districts through Title 1 funding; less for the art education; less for after-school programs; less for preschool programs; less for technical education; less for child nutrition; less for adult basic education.

Ah, but DeVos says we can afford to plug $1 billion into school vouchers for private and church-run schools. School vouchers are advertised as "choice" by the symphonic propagandists of the right. The suggestion that people get to "choose" where to take their voucher money always plays well with those repelled by the germy masses that populate public schools.

Let's understand: School vouchers aren't about education. They are about association, a ticket to flee, a knowing nod to privileged Americans for whom white flight is a defining lifestyle.

No evidence supports the hype about school vouchers as tickets to something better. For one, they can't and don't match the costs of private schools, which set their tuitions as insurance that selectivity will reign.

The most important reason why vouchers are a bogus "solution" is that the central factor in educational excellence is parents. If private schools are better in any way, the claim can only be explained by more homogenous populations and highly engaged (and wealthy) parents.

We hear DeVos mention "failing public schools" in every other sentence, but she dare not say that urban schools (without question the schools to which she refers) deal with challenges that she could barely contemplate in a life of privilege.

Another magic bullet promoted by DeVos and Trump is charter schools.

Ah, charter schools: Some – those not run by flea-bag, fast-buck, for-profit operations that leave town by the weekend – do commendably. And why? Supposedly it's because they have fewer state requirements. If that's the case, why not have fewer requirements for all schools, particularly the clinking, chafing shackles of standardized testing?

            An idea for DeVos: If vouchers to private and church schools are the answer, distribute your family billions that way, rather than in subdividing the swamp.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

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