By Tim Ryan
WASHINGTON (CN ) – Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and members of her family have donated more than $600,000 to school-choice ballot initiatives and groups since 2007, showing the influence the family has wielded in growing a movement she is now set to bring to fruition.
The data, compiled by the Associated Press from the National Institute on Money in State Politics and other sources, shows the DeVos family as active political donors, giving more than $16 million to candidates and other political causes from 2007-2016. More than 6.5 percent of that went to school choice ballot measures and groups that specifically name enacting school choice programs as a goal.
Including Betsy and her husband Dick, the family members shown in the AP data include Helen and Richard DeVos, Betsy’s in-laws, as well as Betsy’s mother, Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, and her brother Erik Prince and his wife Joanna.
The family has given to nearly 1,500 candidates, political groups and school choice initiatives in the past decade in states from California to New York. Though most of the contributions went to candidates for political office and was not tied directly to advancing school choice, the contributions primarily went to Republicans, traditionally the banner bearers for the idea.
Though the data shows 12 other families and individuals spending more than the DeVos relatives combined in the past decade on school-choice ballot measures, the influence Betsy and her family has had on school choice’s march into 30 states and the District of Columbia in recent years goes beyond the final tally on the ledger.
“She’s been a leader in this for close to two decades,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a education reform advocacy group.
Petrilli said the influx of money into the coffers of school choice candidates has helped the contentious program gain prominence and compete financially with teachers unions, though that group still outspent school choice advocates by more than a 2-to-1 margin, according to the AP data.
“What they’ve done is they’ve tried to remove this advantage that the unions have enjoyed for decades by matching their political involvement,” Petrilli said, noting DeVos has been key to this movement.
But the elevation of a critical donor to the top of the Department of Education is not the easy win it may seem for school choice advocates, who are split on how exactly the federal government should be involved in bringing school choice measures to the states and what form that reform should take.
DeVos’ confirmation process was arguably the most contentious of the Trump administration, starting with a widely panned nomination hearing and culminating with Vice President Mike Pence casting a historic vote to break a stalemate in the Senate. Her unpopularity was on stark display last week when graduates at Benthune-Cookman University booed and turn their backs while DeVos was giving a commencement speech.
“It’s quite possible that she’s making it harder to support [school choice measures],” Petrilli said.
The Associated Press analysis unveiled a divide in how school choice advocates want to see their goals accomplished, whether it be through vouchers or education savings accounts or increased funding of public charter schools. The ballot initiatives that the 48 largest donors to school choice programs supported illustrates this split, with wealthy donors falling behind measures spanning the full spectrum of the school choice debate.
Petrilli said while conservatives, the primary supporters of school choice measures, generally are not in favor of the federal government stepping into what has traditionally been a state issue, some in blue states see federal intervention as the only possible way to bring school choice home.
President Donald Trump’s budget outline signals a support for a federal role in bringing school choice to the states, calling for a bump of $1.4 billion for school choice initiatives, including large increases for charter schools and private school choice programs.
Betsy DeVos’ position as the leader of an agency that can bring about a change to which she has been financially key puts her in a unique situation in history, but not necessarily in the Trump’s administration, said Sarah Bryner, a research director at the Center for Responsive Politics.
Trump is building the first new cabinet since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which opened up campaign finance laws, meaning his will be the first where agency leaders’ political contributions are on full display, Bryner said.
“This is the first time in history that we’ve really had the ability for people to be such active political contributors with such huge amounts of money going in and out of the system,” Bryner said.
Absent being able to benefit financially from the arrangement there doesn’t appear to be much of a conflict with DeVos leading an agency whose mission she and her family has sought to shape with political donations, though the unique nature of the post-Citizens United cabinet makes it hard to show the impacts her history as a political contributor might have on her department’s policy.
“She clearly believes that these are the right things to do, the fact that she has a monetary relationship with organizations that support that same policy shouldn’t really surprise anyone,” Bryner said.