Nominated by President Donald J. Trump, Betsy DeVos, 59, became the 11th U.S. Secretary of Education after an extremely rocky confirmation process. She was finally confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Feb. 7. 2017, 51-50. Vice President Mike Pence cast the deciding vote, making hers the closest vote for any cabinet officer in history.
DeVos was derided for the way she shakily answered questions during her confirmation hearing. For example, when quizzed about federal law and policy, she made a comment about U.S. school personnel carrying guns to protect students from bears. Though she later said it was a joke, that week, DeVos became the butt of late-night TV shows.
During the hearings, DeVos’ conservative Christian stance and the fact that she (and her children) all attended private schools, further ignited the criticism that she is no friend to public education. Ms. DeVos acknowledged that most American students attend public schools and that won’t change, but that she believes that public school teachers generally don’t take initiative, but wait for instructions instead. The result, DeVos claims, is a less than stellar education for the majority of students. She’s on a mission to change that. One of her main goals is to fight for public funds to be able to be used for private schools through a voucher system. This would include parochial schools.
Before coming to Washington D.C., Secretary DeVos was involved in education policy for more than 30 years. She is best known for her work on behalf of education reforms, most notably as a strong advocate for charter schools and the ability of parents to choose where their children attend school. She has supported the creation of new educational choices for students in 25 states and the District of Columbia.
Secretary DeVos was born in Holland, Mich. and has been in the state ever since, becoming a regular fixture in Michigan business and political affairs. As a young woman, she earned a Bachelors of Arts degree from Calvin College in Grand Rapids. Her father, Edgar Prince, turned his auto parts company into a business worth more than a billion dollars. She worked for him for a while. And, her brother, Erik D. Prince, was the founder and CEO of Blackwater, the private security firm that made millions and garnered controversy for supplying private military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq.
DeVos got interested in education at an early age. Her mother was a public school teacher. She grew up seeing firsthand how children from low-income neighborhoods lost out when it came to a quality education. For close to two decades, DeVos was an in-school mentor for at-risk children in the Grand Rapids area. In addition to her business experience as the chairman of The Windquest Group, an enterprise and investment management firm right before her confirmation, she served on the boards of many charitable and civic organizations, including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Kids Hope USA, and ArtPrize.
Despite her lifelong commitment to education, Secretary DeVos has been criticized because of her affluence and its implications. A billionaire, Betsy DeVos is married to philanthropist and entrepreneur Dick DeVos, whose family founded Amway. They have four children and seven grandchildren.
As a couple, they are loaded. Her critics say that she is out of touch with Americans, especially those in poverty and that her desire to help disadvantaged children to a better education is a smokescreen to undermine the public school system. Nevertheless, one of Betsy’s first acts as Secretary of Education was to call the leaders of both major U.S. teachers’ unions.
Though she is often polite in public, those who know her best say that he’s a “political fighter.” A Feb. 2018 article in the New York Times reports that even her critics admit that once DeVos “learns the ropes,” she’ll be able to quickly build alliances and “get her way.” The consensus is that no one should doubt her clout, and underestimate her ability to make real change in Washington and the country.
And, she has a sense of humor, too. After the tough road to confirmation, she wasn’t shy about making fun of herself in the early days of settling into the job. In contrast to President Trump, DeVos tends to shrug off comments that she is ignorant. Instead, she limits her response and goes about her business. She has tough skin.
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