New York had the Rockefeller oil fortune. Seattle has Bill Gates’ Microsoft money. Grand Rapids, Michigan, has the DeVos Amway bonanza.
The DeVos family has given away $1 billion, and this Rust Belt city of 195,000 has benefited from tens of millions of dollar a year of their largess. This little-examined philanthropy holds a key to understanding Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s billionaire nominee for secretary of education.
Her vision includes religious academies; charters schools with for-profit management companies, including fully online operators; and specialized public schools. The stated philosophy of Amway Corp., the multi-level marketing juggernaut based in a Grand Rapids suburb, could easily apply to her brand of public education: “Personal opportunity and economic opportunity go hand in hand.”
DeVos marks a break with a bipartisan consensus, supported by other billionaires, especially Microsoft Corp. co-founder Gates. For years, while they have supported charter schools, especially in poor communities, these benefactors also have stressed accountability through testing and tying teacher pay to student performance.
By contrast, DeVos favors an approach that lets parents take public money through vouchers and spend it wherever they like -- including at private, religious schools.
“What sets her apart is that she favors market solutions,” said Robert Floden, dean of the Michigan State University College of Education.
DeVos’s views will be on display this week in Washington, when the Senate has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday on her confirmation. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York had identified her as among the eight “most troublesome" Trump cabinet choices.
Growing up in nearby Holland before settling down in Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second-largest city, DeVos first found a way to adapt her conservative free-market politics and religion to the world of public education.
Take a tour of the institutions that educated her and you immediately find the powerful influence of religion. DeVos attended Holland Christian Schools, and she belongs to the Christian Reformed Church, a Calvinist denomination.
The nominee for education secretary graduated from Calvin College, a liberal arts institution in Grand Rapids that “prepares students to be Christ’s agents in renewal in the world.”
‘Birthed in Prayer’
Not far away is The Potter’s House private school, one of her favorite education charities. A “Christ-centered school, birthed in prayer and rooted in Scripture,” it offers generous scholarships to poor students.
“She’s always thinking about what is the best way to educate kids in the 21st century, and are we locked into models that have perhaps become somewhat outdated?” said John Booy, Potter’s House superintendent.
DeVos herself represents the confluence of two Michigan fortunes. Through her father, she was heir to the Prince family’s auto-parts empire. The father of her husband, Dick DeVos Jr., founded Amway, whose parent company is closely held Alticor Inc.
Through her network of nonprofits and political-action committees such as American Federation for Children and the Great Lakes Education Project, DeVos is pushing to direct public money into private religious schools like Potter’s House. Since 1989, DeVos and her relatives have given at least $20.2 million to Republican candidates, party committees, political-action committees and super PACs, according to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks money in politics.
DeVos, a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, declined an interview request. Her support for vouchers stems from one of her core beliefs.
“Let the education dollar follow each child, instead of forcing the child to follow the money,” she said in a 2015 speech. “This is straightforward. And it’s how you go from a closed system to an open system that encourages innovation.”
In Michigan, she supported a ballot measure on vouchers that failed. She then funded fruitful efforts in states like Indiana, where most of the money goes to religious schools. President-elect Trump has proposed $20 billion in federal money for vouchers.
As a second choice, DeVos favors public schools operated by private organizations, or charter schools. The Lansing, Michigan-based Great Lakes Education Project -- a combination of a political-action committee, lobbying group and nonprofit educational fund - - pushed for a charter-school law that now provides the private organizations with more freedom and less oversight than in most states.
In Grand Rapids, near the city’s airport, her family founded its own charter school. Her husband, who loves airplanes, started West Michigan Aviation Academy, which offers student training on its pair of Cessna planes.
Full-size airplanes hang from the ceiling of the main school commons area, and a partially disassembled helicopter forms the centerpiece of a study area. Students not only learn to fly, they also build remote-control aircraft as well as robots. About a third of the students are in the pilot program.
As is typical at the state’s charter schools, the nonprofit academy has a contract with a company called Michigan Educational Personnel Services, which provides administrative support. The state’s charter law, as crafted by DeVos allies, has been among the most hospitable for for-profit companies. But Betsy DeVos’s heart is clearly in vouchers.
“Charter schools take a while to start up and get operating,’’ she said in a 2013 interview. “Meanwhile, there are very good nonpublic schools, hanging on by a shoestring, that can begin taking students today.’’
Michigan’s Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank that has received money from the DeVos family, estimates there are about 21,000 spots in private Michigan schools that could be filled by voucher students.
DeVos’s Michigan political-action committee last year advocated unsuccessfully for dissolving Detroit’s financially struggling school district rather than spending $617 million to rescue it. Such stances have earned her opposition from the American Federation of Teachers.
“She is a poster child for wanting to decimate public education,’’ said President Randi Weingarten.
In Grand Rapids, however, the family has donated $3.3 million to help turn around failing public schools and promote specialized offerings, such as one at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. The superintendent has credited DeVos for her support of the district’s rescue plan.
Still, even in public schools, DeVos sometimes looks to churches for salvation. She has long backed a charity called Kids Hope USA, which sends volunteers from churches into public schools. In Grand Rapids, DeVos has been a mentor, served as board chair and is a national adviser to the organization. (Kids Hope USA policy forbids volunteers from conducting church business on school grounds.)
DeVos may be a lighting rod nationally, but not here. Her family’s philanthropy has spurred 3,300 new housing units and 90 new bars and restaurants including Hop Cats and Buffalo Wings, according to Grand Action, the group her husband helped found in 1993. In 2013, the new breweries in Grand Rapids won it the title “Beer City USA.”
Thanks in part to money from the family, Grand Valley State University has doubled enrollment, to 25,000, by adding six new specialized branches in downtown Grand Rapids. The community is trying to keep talented students from leaving for work elsewhere, said Tom Haas, the school’s president.
“The family are keenly interested in place,’’ Haas said. “They understand the return on a public-private investment.