Betsy DeVos

Betsy DeVos Biography

Political Activist, Government Official (1958–)
Betsy DeVos, an educational activist and a former Michigan Republican Party chairperson, has served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Education since February 2017.

Who Is Betsy DeVos?

Born in Michigan to a successful entrepreneur in 1958, Betsy DeVos married into the wealthy and influential DeVos family in 1979. After rising to chair of the Michigan Republican Party in 1996, DeVos embarked on extensive efforts to promote school voucher programs in her home state and beyond, founding such organizations as the American Federation for Children. Tapped as President-elect Donald Trump's choice for education secretary, DeVos endured a bumpy confirmation hearing that required Vice President Mike Pence's historic tiebreaking vote to secure her cabinet post. DeVos has since made her mark by revising President Barack Obama-era guidelines for student-loan debt relief and rules governing sexual assault cases on college campuses.

Betsy DeVos Photo

Betsy DeVos

Education Secretary Pick and Senate Confirmation

On November 23, 2016, President-elect Donald Trump announced that he was nominating DeVos for the cabinet position of secretary of education. The pick was criticized by teachers' unions and others in the education sector, as DeVos had no experience as a teacher and a long track record of seeking to reroute public school funds toward the expansion of charter schools.

The nominee did little to assuage critics during her January 2017 confirmation hearing, in which she demonstrated a lack of understanding of pedagogical issues like the "growth vs. proficiency" debate. DeVos also unwittingly became late-night comedic fodder when asked whether guns belonged in schools, and she suggested that rural schools needed them to protect against grizzly bear attacks.

Her shaky performance prompted Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins to join the united Democratic opposition and leave the Senate deadlocked at 50 votes apiece. However, DeVos was confirmed to the post on February 7th, after Mike Pence became the first vice president to cast a tiebreaker vote for a cabinet nominee.

'60 Minutes' Interview

In March 2018, approximately 13 months after her Senate confirmation, DeVos had another opportunity to explain her views on important educational issues during a 60 Minutes interview with Leslie Stahl. However, the education secretary again drew unwanted attention for her inability to answer some questions and contradicting herself on others. 

With the tragedy of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, still fresh in the public consciousness, DeVos reiterated her support for arming teachers, before suggesting that she couldn't imagine her first-grade teacher being trained to handle a gun. On her longstanding advocacy for school choice, she insisted that performance at public schools improves when students have the option of enrolling at private institutions, though she seemed unsure of whether such improvement had happened in her home state.

Betsy DeVos' Family

DeVos' father, Edgar Prince, founded a manufacturing company that found success by supplying the automotive industry; shortly after his death in 1995, his company, Prince Manufacturing, sold for $1.35 billion. Prince was also a major donor to the Family Research Council and other conservative religious organizations that have opposed civil rights measures for the LGBTQ community.

DeVos' brother, Erik Prince, is a former Navy SEAL officer who founded the private military contractor Blackwater Worldwide (now known as Academi) in 1997. In March 2018, The Washington Post reported that special counsel Robert Mueller was investigating whether Erik Prince had sought to establish backchannel communications between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Later in the year he was back in the news for his attempts to lobby Trump administration members to privatize the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Husband and Amway

In what was viewed as a merging of two prominent western Michigan families, Betsy Prince married Dick DeVos in 1979. Dick's father, Richard Sr., had co-founded the home and health goods company Amway, which became a global behemoth on the strength of a multilevel marketing model that transformed social contacts into an ever-growing sales force.

Dick DeVos took after as CEO in 1993, and oversaw a corporate restructuring that folded Amway into a new parent company, Alticor, by 2000. After stepping down in 2002, he launched an unsuccessful bid for governor of Michigan in 2006. The DeVoses have four children: Rick, Elissa, Andrea and Ryan.

Betsy DeVos' Net Worth

According to an October 2017 Town & Country article, DeVos and her husband share one-fourth of the DeVos family fortune, then estimated at $5.2. billion, leaving her net worth at approximately $1.3 billion. Among her assets, the education secretary owns a $4 million primary home in Ada, Michigan, a waterfront estate in Holland valued at another $4.4 million and a fleet of 12 private jets. In July 2018, it was reported that someone had untied her $40 million yacht, SeaQuest, from its dock and sent it adrift on Lake Erie, though it was eventually corralled after sustaining minor damages.

Education Secretary Policies

Debt Relief

In June 2017, DeVos announced she was halting a series of regulations designed to protect students from the predatory actions of for-profit colleges, including a process for erasing loan debt for those with worthless degrees following the collapse of institutions like Corinthian Colleges. Insisting that she wanted to fix a "muddled process that's unfair to students and schools, and puts taxpayers on the hook for significant costs," DeVos installed a new tiered system late in the year, which provided partial restitution based on the financial success or failures of former students.

In June 2018, a San Francisco judge ordered the education department to halt the new process over its violation of the Privacy Act and use of its "average earnings rule" to settle claims. The following month, DeVos announced the department was creating a new policy that required borrowers to prove they were in deep financial straits or had been intentionally misled by their schools in order to qualify for debt relief, standards that critics charged were difficult to reach.

Sexual Assault

In September 2017, DeVos said she was revising another set of existing guidelines, over management of sexual assault accusations on college campuses. The Obama administration had required schools to use a "preponderance of the evidence" standard when determining if a student was guilty, but DeVos raised the bar to a standard of "clear and convincing evidence." Supporters claimed that the new rules provided due process to students who were unfairly accused, but critics were unconvinced, prompting a January 2018 lawsuit from victims' and women's rights groups that charged the education department with lessening protections for campus victims.

Transgender Bathrooms

In February 2017, President Trump rescinded another Obama-administration directive that permitted transgender students to use school bathrooms that corresponded with their gender identity. DeVos reportedly butted heads with Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the issue, over concerns that vulnerable students would face harassment, before giving her consent. By August 2018, however, DeVos no longer seemed to harbor such concerns, as Politico reported that she had halted investigations into complaints filed by transgender students over being denied access to bathrooms.

School Shootings

In March 2018, as a response to the recent shootings at Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the White House announced a series of steps designed to stamp out school violence, including the designation of DeVos as chair of a commission tasked with investigating the issue. DeVos said the commission, which would look into the psychological fallout of violent video games and media coverage of mass tragedies, was expected to finish and present its findings within a year. "We are committed to working quickly because there's no time to waste," the secretary said. "No student, no family, no teacher and no school should have to live the horror of Parkland or Sandy Hook or Columbine again."

Michigan School Reform

Prior to her nomination for education secretary, DeVos was best known for efforts to promote school voucher programs, designed to funnel public school funds to parents who want more educational choices. In 2000, she headed a $5.7 million campaign in support of proposal to amend the state constitution and use taxpayer dollars for private schools, only to see it voted down.

DeVos and her husband turned their focus to the burgeoning charter school industry by launching the nonprofit Great Lakes Education Project in 2001, and two years later they followed with the political action committee All Children Matter, which teamed with PACs in targeted states to support candidates that favored their agenda. In 2010 several educational nonprofits were banded together to become the American Federation for Children, with DeVos named chairperson.

The lobbying efforts paid off — in 2011 Michigan lifted limits on the number of charters that can operate in the state — but the success of the DeVos vision for improved education for all remains open for debate. In 2014 the Detroit Free Press published a report which described only marginal differences in student performances between state public and charter schools, as well as the lack of oversight for charter schools that can use the funds as they wish.

Childhood and Early Political Career

Elisabeth Dee Prince was born on January 8, 1958, in Holland, Michigan, a small community founded by Dutch Calvinists. She attended Holland Christian Schools before enrolling at Calvin College in nearby Grand Rapids, earning her B.A. in business economics in 1979.

DeVos also made her entry into the political world during her college years by volunteering for President Gerald Ford's reelection campaign and attending the Republican National Convention in 1976. She served as chair of the Kent County Republican Party from 1984 to '88 and later rose to the rank of state GOP chair, holding the position from 1996 to 2000 and again from 2003 to '05.

Foundation and Philanthropy

In 1989, the DeVoses founded the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, which their website describes as "a vehicle for charitable giving." The organization pinpoints community, education, the arts, justice, and leadership as the focal points of its faith-based efforts.

Additionally, the extended family has donated to numerous causes in Grand Rapids, funding the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, the DeVos Place Convention Center, the DeVos Performance Hall and the DeVos Learning Center (at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum). Betsy and her husband have also been involved in the Potter's House Christian school, through donations and by volunteering personal time.

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