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The DeVos Family: Meet the Super-Wealthy Right-Wingers Working With the Religious Right to Kill Public Education

By now you've surely heard of the Kochs. Meanwhile, the powerful, wealthy DeVos family has remained largely under the radar, while leading a stealth assault on America's schools.

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Most Americans do not want their tax dollars to fund private and sectarian schools. Since 1966, 24 of 25 voucher initiatives have been defeated by voters, most by huge margins. Nevertheless, the pro-privatization battle continues, organized by an array of 527s, 501(c)(3)s, 501(c)(4)s, and political action committees. At the helm of this interconnected network is Betsy DeVos, the four-star general of the pro-voucher movement.

The DeVos Family Campaign for Privatization of Schools

The DeVoses are top contributors to the Republican Party and have provided the funding for major Religious Right organizations. And they spent millions of their own fortune promoting the failed voucher initiative in Michigan in 2000, dramatically outspending their opposition. Sixty-eight percent of Michigan voters rejected the voucher scheme. Following this defeat, the DeVoses altered their strategy.

Instead of taking the issue directly to voters, they would support bills for vouchers in state legislatures. In 2002 Dick DeVos gave a speech on school choice at the Heritage Foundation. After an introduction by former Reagan Secretary of Education William Bennett, DeVos described a system of “rewards and consequences” to pressure state politicians to support vouchers. “That has got to be the battle. It will not be as visible,” stated DeVos. He described how his wife Betsy was putting these ideas into practice in their home state of Michigan and claimed this effort has reduced the number of anti-school choice Republicans from six to two. The millions raised from the wealthy pro-privatization contributors would be used to finance campaigns of voucher supporters and purchase ads attacking opposing candidates.

Media materials for Betsy DeVos’ group All Children Matter, formed in 2003, claimed the organization spent $7.6 million in its first year, “impacting state legislative elections in 10 targeted states” and a won/loss record of 121/60.

Dick DeVos also explained to his Heritage Foundation audience that they should no longer use the term public schools, but instead start calling them “government schools.” He noted that the role of wealthy conservatives would have to be obscured. “We need to be cautious about talking too much about these activities,” said DeVos, and pointed to the need to “cut across a lot of historic boundaries, be they partisan, ethnic, or otherwise.”

Reinventing Vouchers

Like DeVos, several free-market think tanks have also issued warnings that vouchers appear to be an “elitist” plan. There's reason for their concern, given the long and racially charged history of vouchers.

School vouchers drew little public interest until Brown v. Board of Education and the court-ordered desegregation of public schools. Southern states devised voucher schemes for students to leave public schools and take the public funding with them.

Author Kevin Michael Kreuse explains how this plan was supposed to work in White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. “At the heart of the plan to defend school segregation, for instance, stood a revolutionary scheme called the ‘private-school plan.’ In 1953, a full year before Brown, Governor Talmadge advanced a constitutional amendment giving the General Assembly the power to privatize the state’s entire system of public education. In the event of court-ordered desegregation, school buildings would be closed, and students would receive grants to attend private, segregated schools.”

Given the racist origins of vouchers, advocates of privatization have had to do two things: obscure the fact that the pro-privatization movement is backed primarily by white conservatives, and emphasize the support of African American and Democratic lawmakers where it exists. 

In 2000, Howard Fuller founded the Black Alliance for Education Options. The group was largely funded by John Walton and the Bradley Foundation. Walton, a son of Walmart founder Sam Walton, contributed millions to the Betsy DeVos-led All Children Matter organization, including a bequest after his death in a plane crash in 2004. 

 
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