What It Would Be Like to Spend a Day with Betsy DeVos: Would You Quit Halfway Through?
If you watched the painful 60 Minutes interview with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, you may have questions. For one: How did a woman who knows so little about schools get named to that position? The astoundingly wealthy Cabinet member once suggested teachers should carry guns to protect students against grizzly bears. We’re sorry to say, her answers have not improved. This got us wondering whether we could spend a day with her without straining our head-shaking muscles. Here’s what you might learn if you did.
Her family exerts a ton of influence in politics
Because DeVos also said she’s “more misunderstood than anything,” let’s take a look at where she came from. The Michigan woman was born rich and married even richer — her family’s net worth weighs in over $5 billion. Because of those riches, the DeVos family runs the political machine in Michigan and now, can exert that influence nationally through DeVos, to a point.
“At the federal level, when GOP candidates are looking for big donors to back them, they have options,” explained Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “If you don’t get Sheldon Adelson, you can go to the Koch brothers, and so on. In Michigan, the DeVos family is a class of donor all by themselves.”
Next: Betsy DeVos herself is no slouch, either.
The secretary carries a long activist history
While DeVos did not come to her current job with any education experience, she has mired herself in politics for most of her life. She formerly chaired the Michigan Republican Party, served as a member of the Republican National Committee and her name once got floated to succeed Haley Barbour as head of the RNC. She also directed a statewide ballot campaign to legalize public funding of religious schools and in college, traveled the country volunteering for Gerald Ford’s presidential campaign. And she understands the scope of her family’s influence — and how to use it.
“My family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican party,” she wrote in a 1997 editorial. “I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.”
Next: Her family’s contributions go back to an unlikely source.
She belongs to a highly conservative Christian sect
The DeVos family believes in Calvinism or the Christian Reformed Church, which emphasizes an “inner worldly asceticism” in its followers. Historically, instead of ostentatious displays of wealth, Calvinist Protestants have turned their economic gains into savings and investments. One look around the number of schools, hospitals, and museum wings bearing the DeVos name demonstrates this maxim among Betsy’s family, as well.
Next: Their religion also addresses education directly.
Religion in schools plays a huge role
The Christian Reformed Church split from the Reformed Church in America largely because of education. Members who stayed in the Reformed Church in America supported public schools; Christian Reformed Church members believed education rested on families sending their kids to religious schools.
In addition, many church members opposed unions by the time the New Deal protected the right to strike and allowed for collective bargaining. They viewed it as socialism that intruded on the church’s authority and led to bigger government.
Next: DeVos has made statements that demonstrate she agrees with these sentiments.
Her beliefs hugely inform DeVos’ stance
In keeping with Calvinism, DeVos does not believe in welfare. “[For welfare recipients] to sit and be handed money from the government because they think a job … is beneath them,” she said to the Detroit Free Press in 1992. “If I had to work on a line in a factory, I would do that before I would stand in line for a welfare check.” Of course, DeVos has never found herself in that situation, so that all comes as conjecture.
In 2001, DeVos spoke at “The Gathering,” an annual meeting of some of America’s wealthiest Christians. There, she directed her attention to “impact our culture in ways that are not the traditional funding-the-Christian-organization route, but that really may have greater Kingdom gain in the long run by changing the way we approach things — in this case, the system of education in the country.” DeVos has long advocated for school choice, once calling public education “a dead end.”
Next: Today, DeVos spends most of her time inserting her foot into her mouth.
DeVos misspeaks almost as often as she speaks
Like much of the Trump administration, DeVos likes to think of herself as a media victim. “You may have heard some of the wonderful things the mainstream media has called me lately,” she said. “I, however, pride myself on being called a mother, a grandmother, a life partner, and perhaps the first person to tell Bernie Sanders to his face that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Actually, there is, and she spearheads that program — sort of.
Public schools serve free and subsidized lunches to more than 30 million students every day. While the Department of Agriculture actually pays for this program, DeVos’ “joke” exposed her ignorance to the fact that free school lunches often represent the only thing that keep low-income kids from going hungry.
Next: Her ignorance comes out in other places, too.
She has a hard time thinking outside herself
For DeVos, changing her mind seems difficult, at best. When preparing for her job, trainers had a hard time introducing new information to the secretary. “Her mind didn’t naturally go to different places,” said one participant in her training sessions. “She was a very visual person, so she had to have the stuff color-coded in front of her.”
That presented its own problems, since one of the most powerful people in the country cannot rely on flashcards to do her job. “You don’t want to have all those things out there because people can see it,” the GOP official noted.
Next: To her credit, DeVos spends a lot of time talking to smarter people.
The secretary takes a lot of meetings
An average day shows DeVos’ calendar full of meetings. Her schedule includes appointments with representatives from the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, the American Association of Christian Schools, and the Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence, the education chairman from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as officials from other religious groups.
Nathan Bailey, a spokesman for DeVos, said she also met with state education chiefs, superintendents, principals, and teachers. While DeVos specifically told 60 Minutes she did not visit failing schools, her spokesperson said she did visit more public schools than private ones. Apparently, she just prefers the “good” ones.
Next: If you spend time with DeVos, pack your bags.
DeVos travels extensively but not always for work
Since her Senate confirmation in February 2017, DeVos has traveled extensively. Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said that DeVos “travels on personally owned aircraft, accompanied by her security detail and whenever possible, additional support staff” without charging the government. She also does not accept government funding for lodging or other travel costs. That may have to do with where she goes.
A New York Times examination of her calendar shows that she frequently leaves Washington on long weekends. Her destinations have included Vero Beach, Florida; Aspen, Colorado; and Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she or her family owns vacation homes. And none of these are exactly cabins, either. Betsy and Dick DeVos’ summer home in Michigan is a three-story, 22,000-square-foot estate, with eight dishwashers, 10 bathrooms, and 13 porches.
Next: This attribute of DeVos’ travel also makes her unique.
Despite a wealth of meetings, she fails to answer questions
DeVos holds the unique position as the only Cabinet secretary protected by a squad of U.S. Marshals because she receives death threats. Protesters also meet her destinations, accusing her of pushing an elitist agenda. In truth, DeVos does appear to believe the rules do not apply to her. Despite confessions she couldn’t “ever imagine” her first-grade teacher carrying a gun, she maintains her position that arming teachers “should be an option.” In other words, arm teachers — just not mine.
Even activists who do get her ear come away dissatisfied. According to BuzzFeed News, she visited Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and took just five questions in a press conference, declining to meet with students directly. “I told the student newspaper reporters that I would love to come back in an appropriate amount of time and just sit down and talk with them,” she said, sharing no details on gun reform.
Next: So what would a day with DeVos look like?
DeVos knows exactly what she wants, but she’s not sharing
While she spends a lot of time listening to officials — many of whom already share her perspective — the education secretary demonstrates her inability to absorb new information every time she appears in front of a camera.
A typical day with DeVos might involve sitting in the lap of luxury, shaking important hands, and kissing like-minded babies. Then again, if DeVos learned anything from her recent media tour de failure, hopefully it involves brushing up on the struggles schools face across the country, and not just privately run ones.
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