Cristobal J. Alex & David Donnelly
Cristobal J. Alex is president of the Latino Victory Fund. David Donnelly is president and CEO of the money-in-politics reform group Every Voice.
By Cristobal J. Alex & David Donnelly | Jan 17, 2017
Campaign-finance questions will loom large over the Senate’s Tuesday confirmation hearing for billionaire and education lobbyist Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick for education secretary.
Having initially postponed the hearing, senators now face a mounting list of questions about DeVos. The latest is why she failed to disclose a $125,000 political donation, something the Trump transition team initially failed to catch. Also sure to come up are DeVos’s business ties and secret political giving, not to mention the recent report that she and her husband have 250 companies registered to a single address in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Awkwardly, though, much of DeVos’s campaign money has gone to the very senators now screening her nomination. Five of the Republicans on the committee have received more than $250,000 between them from DeVos and her family. (They are North Carolina’s Richard Burr, Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, South Carolina’s Tim Scott, and Indiana’s Todd Young.) And there are 21 more senators, not on the committee, who have together received nearly $1 million from DeVos and her family.
DeVos herself makes no bones that such contributions can sway lawmakers. “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence,” she wrote in a 1997 Roll Call op-ed. “Now I simply concede the point. They are right.” She went on to admit, “We expect a return on our investment.”
DeVos has certainly reaped a handsome return on the big campaign money she has spent to promote far-right policies. In Michigan, DeVos spent millions to elect Republicans, including Governor Rick Snyder and members of the GOP-controlled legislature, who then rubber-stamped her for-profit schools agenda. Her sway over the legislature was so great that state lawmakers who crossed her were removed from chairing committees, and subject to well-funded attacks when they sought re-election, according to The New York Times.
The resulting for-profit schools explosion in Detroit, a district with a student body that is 97 percent children of color, diverted money away from the city’s public schools while leaving families with no good choices. Taxpayers are pumping millions into failing or nonexistent charter schools that operate with little oversight. A lawsuit filed by Detroit families alleges that the city’s schools denied them literacy. Seventy-one percent of eighth graders in Michigan aren’t proficient in math while 71 percent of fourth-graders aren’t proficient in reading, according to the 2016 Kids Count report released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
DeVos, in the meantime, appears to be cashing in. About 80 percent of charter schools in Michigan are run by for-profit companies, like K12 Inc., a for-profit chain of online charter schools, in which the DeVos family has invested. A key question for the Senate now is whether she profited from Michigan’s experiments in education.
In Flint, Michigan, policies that hurt the city’s black residents also enriched DeVos, only this time the casualty was clean water, not public schools. For more than two years, toxic water has been poisoning Flint’s mostly black residents. That’s partly because the DeVos-backed Mackinac Center for Public Policy advocated for the state to appoint emergency managers to replace elected officials in cities with persistent budgetary shortfalls. The DeVos-funded Republican majority in state government adopted this plan, and in 2013, Snyder appointed Darnell Earley to act as the emergency manager for Flint. In a cost-saving measure, Earley switched the city’s safe and clean water supply over to lead-laced water. The rest is history.
And again, DeVos effectively profited from the water crisis she helped create. She chairs the Windquest Group, an investor in Boxed Water, a company that promoted its brand by offering to donate water to Flint whenever customers bought the product.
This story has been updated.