For years now, she has been at the forefront of the educational-reform movement. Interview from Spring 2013 issue of Philanthropy magazine
Betsy DeVos is a reformer. At Calvin College, the young Elisabeth Prince undertook her vocation, becoming involved with campus politics and remaining politically active ever since. For more than 30 years, Mrs. DeVos has led a variety of campaigns, party organizations, and political action committees, including six years as chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. The reforming tendency runs in her family—in 2006 her husband, Dick DeVos, was the Republican nominee for Governor of Michigan.
In business as in politics, the DeVoses look for innovative solutions to social problems. Betsy serves as chairman of the Windquest Group, a privately held, multi-company operating group that invests in technology, manufacturing, and clean energy. She founded the firm with her husband in 1989. Dick DeVos is also the former president of Amway, and former president of the Orlando Magic NBA franchise.
Perhaps most importantly, Mrs. DeVos pursues reform through a variety of nonprofit roles. She is chairman of the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, and her charitable interests range widely. She is a member of several national and local boards, including the DeVos Institute for Arts Management at the Kennedy Center, Mars Hill Bible Church, Kids Hope USA, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education. She is perhaps best known as a leading advocate for the educational-choice movement. To that end, she serves as chairman of the American Federation for Children (AFC) and the Alliance for School Choice.
Philanthropy recently spoke with Mrs. DeVos about her work in educational reform generally, and school choice specifically.
PHILANTHROPY: It’s been more than 50 years since Milton Friedman wrote “The Role of Government in Education,” which made the first principled case for school choice. It’s coming up on 25 years since Wisconsin instituted the nation’s first private-school voucher program in Milwaukee. So, how do you feel about progress to date?
MRS. DEVOS: Well, I’ve never been more optimistic. Today there are about 250,000 students in 33 publicly funded, private-choice programs in 17 states and the District of Columbia. The movement’s growth is accelerating. Within the last year, the number of students in educational-choice programs grew by about 40,000. In 2012, we saw new programs in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Mississippi, and New Hampshire, and expanded programs in Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In 2011, Indiana passed a major new statewide voucher program, which is only in its second academic year and is already enrolling nearly 10,000 children. We conducted polling in five states, and found educational choice enjoyed enormous popularity, especially among Latinos.
This confluence of events is forcing people to take note, particularly because of the public’s awareness that traditional public schools are not succeeding. In fact, let’s be clear, in many cases, they are failing. That’s helped people become more open to what were once considered really radical reforms—reforms like vouchers, tax credits, and education savings accounts.
PHILANTHROPY: You’ve been a part of the movement since it was considered radical. What got you interested in the first place?
MRS. DEVOS: Well, it’s not like there was a single incident that drew me in. It was more gradual than that. When Dick and I had school-age children ourselves, we visited the Potter’s House Christian School, which for more than 30 years has been serving a part of Grand Rapids with many low-income families. While we were at the school, we met parents who were doing everything in their power to have their kids in an environment that was safe, where they were learning, and where the atmosphere was just electric with curiosity, with love for one another.
We kept going back. We would visit, and think about what we saw, and we’d want to visit again. We knew we had the resources to send our kids to whatever school was best for them. For these parents, however, paying tuition was a real sacrifice. We started supporting individual students at the school, and that grew into a larger commitment. To this day, we support the Potter’s House at a significant level.
PHILANTHROPY: And how did supporting that one school lead you to think more broadly about education?
MRS. DEVOS: Like I mentioned, at the time, we had children who were school-age themselves. Well, that touched home. Dick and I became increasingly committed to helping other parents—parents from low-income families in particular. If we could choose the right school for our kids, it only seemed fair that they could do the same for theirs. Dick expressed his commitment by running for the State Board of Education in Michigan; he was elected in 1990. I got involved by starting a foundation that gave scholarships to low-income families so that parents could decide where their kids would go to school. We realized very quickly that, while it was wonderful to help some families through the scholarship fund, it was never going to fundamentally address the real problem. Most parents were not going to get the scholarship they wanted, and that meant most kids would not have the opportunities they deserved.
PHILANTHROPY: So that’s how you became more involved in the educational-choice movement?
MRS. DEVOS: Exactly. During the 1990s, I served on the boards of two national 501(c)(3) charities, Children First America and the American Education Reform Council, both of which worked to expand educational choice through vouchers and tax credits. Both Dick and I were politically involved in passing Michigan’s first charter-school bill in 1993. And in 2000, we tried—unsuccessfully—to change the state constitution to allow tax-credit scholarships or vouchers. It was really tragic, because Michigan has so many families, particularly in our state’s large, urban school districts, who are desperate for better educational options, and because our state constitution has some of the most restrictive language limiting educational choice in the country.
I’ve been in politics for some time, and I had been chair of the Michigan Republican Party for a few years. In response to the defeat of the proposed constitutional amendment I started a political action committee in Michigan called the Great Lakes Education Project, which was devoted to promoting education reform through the expansion of charter schools in the state. Over the course of two years—from 2001 through 2002—our work in Michigan was so successful that some of our friends in the movement began to say, “We really need to do this nationally.” And I said, “Yes, I think we do.”
PHILANTHROPY: I take it that was the beginning of what’s now called the American Federation for Children, which you chair?
MRS. DEVOS: Well, it’s the beginning of my involvement with AFC. The late John Walton and Dick started up what was then called All Children Matter, a 527 political organization, which I chaired. A number of other school-choice supporters also worked very closely with the Alliance for School Choice, a 501(c)(3), to educate the public about the need for greater educational choice. But it didn’t feel like a cohesive enough effort. Successful advocacy requires coordinating a lot of moving parts: identifying potential legislators, educating them about the issue, getting them elected, helping them craft and pass legislation, and then, once the laws are passed, helping them with implementing the programs to ensure they work for children.
We took a long, hard look at ourselves and determined that we could do this in a much smoother manner. It was clear that we needed a more cohesive effort. So a few years ago, we reorganized a number of the key players. We formed the American Federation for Children as a 501(c)(4). It is the umbrella organization that is affiliated with the Alliance for School Choice—still a (c)(3)—and AFC’s political action committee, the American Federation for Children Action Fund. Now that our efforts are better organized, it’s been working really, really well.
PHILANTHROPY: So what have been your biggest successes?
MRS. DEVOS: Florida. Through its tax-credit scholarship program, Florida has enjoyed the nation’s longest period of widespread educational choice, and through the expansion of the program, it has an ever-growing number of students—currently over 50,000—attending the school of their family’s choice.
Florida is also probably the best case study of how all of the pieces work together. John Kirtley led a brilliant effort integrating 501(c)(3), (c)(4), and 527 capabilities. More importantly, John led a very intentional effort to cultivate broad support for the program among both policymakers and the public, and to ensure a strong focus on offering high-quality options as a fundamental part of the choice program. That broad base of support has prevented efforts to overturn or undermine educational choice. Florida is the state we point to and say, “If you do this well, you won’t have to spend a lot of energy protecting the programs you passed. As your programs gain popularity, you can build and enhance them in a major way.”
PHILANTHROPY: Anywhere else?
MRS. DEVOS: We’ve seen major advances recently in Louisiana and Indiana. Those two states passed programs that, between the two of them, have the potential to serve nearly one million students every year. Now, we know not all of those million eligible students are going to take advantage of the programs, but the chances for widespread adoption of educational choice are very high.
We were involved in both those states for several election cycles. Those reforms came about as the result, I believe, of an increasing focus on helping get the right people elected, helping to craft good legislation, helping to get it implemented once it’s passed, and then helping students find schools once the legislation is in place. At the American Federation for Children, we work at every stage of that continu-um, which makes us unique among the national reform efforts.
That said, we believe that the only way that real education choice is going to be successfully implemented is by making it a bipartisan or a non-partisan issue. Until very recently, of course, that hasn’t been the case. Most of the Democrats have been supported by the teachers’ unions and, not surprisingly, have taken the side of the teachers’ unions. What we’ve tried to do is engage with Democrats, to make it politically safe for them to do what they know in their heart of hearts is the right thing. Education should be non-partisan.
PHILANTHROPY: Interesting that you mention the need for a bipartisan consensus in education. But when I look at the three states that you’ve mentioned by name—Florida, Louisiana, and Indiana—I immediately think of three reform-minded Republican governors.
MRS. DEVOS: I wouldn’t underestimate the growing interest in educational choice among Democratic leaders. I think we’re going to see increasing numbers of Democrats embracing educational-choice programs at a gubernatorial level. We are certainly seeing it happen at the state-legislator level. In Florida, for example, what started as a measure supported only by Republicans has now become a movement with significant Democratic support. The same thing is happening in Louisiana. In both legislative chambers, the sponsors of the latest educational-choice bill were Democrats. And we enjoyed that broad bipartisan support precisely because of the long, steady grassroots efforts, spanning several election cycles, from 2003 onward.
PHILANTHROPY: Speaking of grassroots, let me ask you: What works? Are there a few concrete examples of really effective practices?