GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.—Residents of this western Michigan town are having trouble reconciling the Betsy DeVos they know with the Betsy DeVos who serves as President Donald Trump’s controversial education secretary.
The former is widely seen as pragmatic and generous, even by those who dislike her political leanings and devotion to charter schools. The latter? “Unprepared,” “tone deaf,” and “insulated” were phrases that came up more than once during interviews with people who either know DeVos or her family or are familiar with her dealings in this part of the state.
Born into the wealthy, conservative Prince family in 1958, DeVos was raised in the Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, a largely Dutch community near the shores of Lake Michigan. She attended Calvin College, a Christian school in nearby Grand Rapids, before marrying Dick DeVos, whose family co-founded Amway and who ran unsuccessfully for governor a decade ago. (A former classmate recalled lusting after the Mercedes Dick arrived in to pick her up for dates.) The couple, who celebrated their wedding anniversary recently and were back in Grand Rapids for a private celebration of her confirmation with friends, have four grown children. (A request to interview DeVos while she was in town went unanswered, as did a follow-up request for comment to the Education Department.) Over the years, the billionaire couple have contributed to various conservative religious and political causes. DeVos, in particular, has pushed to expand charter schools and the use of vouchers, which let students use public funding to pay for private, sometimes religious, schooling.
DeVos’s educational convictions aren’t necessarily surprising considering her hometown’s ethnic, religious, and cultural ties to the Netherlands. Back in the late 1800s, there was debate about what public education should look like in the Netherlands, with liberal politicians successfully pushing for increasingly secular public schools. Religious schools, they argued, didn’t deserve equal public funding. This angered Catholic and Reformed groups, which allied to campaign for what would become an early and enduring version of school choice. According to The Challenge of Pluralism, a book by several Calvin and Pepperdine University scholars, the framework is this: “religiously based schools of various types and public schools espousing a ‘neutral,’ consensual philosophy all sharing fully and equally in public funding.” That was a concept Abraham Kuyper, a theologian who significantly influenced Calvin College, believed in deeply, and one that endures in modern Dutch society.
It also appears to be an idea DeVos and the Trump administration endorse. Where critics see a violation of a commitment to the separation of church and state, some proponents see it this way, according to the book: “It is on the basis of equal treatment—of making funds available neutrally for all types of religious and secular schools alike—that funding of religious schools and church-state separation are seen as being compatible.”
However, the Netherlands follows its version of school choice up with regulation, including a national curriculum framework and teacher-training requirements. DeVos, as critics note, has generally opposed regulation and, her opponents argue, contributed to the decimation of public education in the process. Her opposition to regulation and broad support of vouchers even puts her at odds with some school-choice supporters, including people like the former education secretary and charter-school co-founder John King, who have called for some choice, but also strict monitoring.
Thomas Pedroni is a professor of education at Wayne State University in Detroit who is anything but fond of the secretary and thinks she has played a role in promoting policies in the city that have harmed public education. He said during an interview near his office that DeVos is such a divisive figure within the choice movement that he’s hopeful she’ll inadvertently create an opening for a renewed focus on democratically operated public education. (Charters are publicly funded but privately operated, and around 80 percent in Michigan are run by for-profit entities.) “From a strategy sense, I’m kind of happy … to see the movement divided,” Pedroni said.
Gary Naeyaert, who was until recently the director of a charter-school advocacy group founded by DeVos and a supporter of the secretary, finds any attempt to evaluate DeVos based on Detroit’s school system supremely frustrating. “Betsy DeVos is not the cause of the dysfunction and the inability of DPS to educate kids,” he said, adding that Michigan offers a stark look at how difficult it is to pass smart school-choice reforms because the state is home to so many “entrenched interest groups.” He recognized during our conversation that Detroit, which has lower than average graduation rates and where some students spend hours commuting to reach a decent school, is often held up by opponents of school-choice initiatives as a worst-case scenario, but said he thinks part of what has plagued the city is an eroding sense of community, whereas the DeVos family has been instrumental in shaping a prosperous and close-knit community in western Michigan.
Although few people I spoke with said anything negative on the record about DeVos herself, plenty of people here voiced disagreements with Naeyaert, expressing concerns about the lack of diversity in the western Michigan community he idealized. This week, days after he and I spoke, Naeyert resigned from the Great Lakes Education Project, after commenting that he wanted to shake a Michigan official who has helped identify failing schools for potential closure “like I like to shake my wife.” The remarks were “poorly worded,” he said.
“You can’t swing a dead cat in Grand Rapids without hitting something with the [DeVos] name on it,” Naeyaert told me. And it’s true. The family’s name and money are everywhere. Restaurants and shops have cropped up throughout the city in recent years as have modern buildings bearing the DeVos name. There’s the DeVos Performance Hall and the DeVos Place Convention Center anchoring downtown. Calvin College to the southeast boasts the DeVos Communication Center, and Grand Rapids Christian High School (where the DeVos children went) has the DeVos Center for Arts and Worship. There’s a DeVos Children’s Hospital, and even a DeVos parking lot at Grand Valley State University’s campus downtown. The secretary and her husband have direct ties to some of these buildings and not to others, but even residents who say they oppose the secretary’s politics expressed a general understanding that the extended DeVos family has played a key role in revitalizing this city, now buzzing with restaurants and breweries. (Betsy and Dick DeVos co-own a wine bar adjacent to the performance hall.)
“There’s that kind of mutual love affair,” Naeyaert said. “She’s as genuine and regular a person as you could meet … Just a regular person who happens to be a millionaire or billionaire.” But what would Naeyaert, who said he expects DeVos to be “fairly agnostic” about the types of schools children have access to as long as there are options, say to people who are scared she’ll do real damage to public education? “My advice is to base their opinions on what she says and does, not what they fear,” he replied.
Here in Grand Rapids, DeVos focused much of her attention on the Potter’s House, an ethnically diverse K-12 Christian school, where DeVos and her husband have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless volunteer hours. About five miles southwest of downtown Grand Rapids in a suburb that has seen an increase in Latino residents in the last couple of decades, the high-school building is nestled between a quiet neighborhood of modest houses on one side and a busy avenue dotted with gas stations and appliance shops on the other. The high school’s 200 or so teenagers all have access to Chromebooks and classrooms full of new swiveling chairs and standing desks and good teachers, thanks in part to DeVos.
John Booy, the superintendent of the school, has been with Potter’s House since its beginning as a tiny volunteer-run operation. After DeVos’s Senate confirmation hearing—where she mentioned Potter’s House—Booy said he received calls from members of the LGBT community questioning how DeVos might receive their children. (Tax papers indicating that DeVos was tied to her mother’s foundation, which made donations to anti-LGBT groups that have advocated for scientifically discredited conversion therapy, came up during the hearing. DeVos dismissed the apparent link as a clerical error.) “You really don’t know her at all,” he mused during an interview in a new wing of the high-school building near a gym where students played on a basketball court. DeVos, for her part, has done little to change that fact, speaking at a conservative conference and taking interview requests from conservative outlets, adopting an aggressive tone that gives those on the political left little reason to give her a chance.
But Booy insisted DeVos wants to create a system in which all families are empowered. “Monopolies don’t reform themselves,” he argued. His own schools are racially diverse and more than half of the students are low-income. Over the years, he said, DeVos and her husband have mentored students, inviting them over for Christmas parties and even helping parents and guardians find jobs or stable housing. Over Chinese checkers or other board games, DeVos would help students strategize about how to get to college, he said. Potter’s House was where she and her husband began to understand and appreciate the struggles some children face, Booy said. “I think that had a really big impact on them.”
Like DeVos, Booy grew up in the Grand Rapids area in the Christian Reformed faith, and attended Calvin College. He began his career teaching at a local public elementary school. “I did love teaching for the Grand Rapids Public Schools,” he said, but Potter’s House was an attempt to create a “family school,” to serve vulnerable kids who attended local schools that weren’t able to provide some of the wraparound services they needed to succeed academically. It was also, Booy said, an attempt to give families who hadn’t had the option before the ability to choose a private, religious education, a desire he shares with DeVos.
Booy, who adopted two sons from India, has been friends with the family for some 30 years, vacationing at their compound in Florida and attending get-togethers with the couple’s other long-time friends. (He insists that, even after three decades, he is one of their newer friends.) In addition to her affinity for walking (“She likes to stay fit,” he said), skiing, reading, and traveling, the woman he knows has a knack for consensus building. Booy served as the second elder at Mars Hill Church while DeVos served as the first elder. “She was able to lead the church through some really transitional times,” he said, adding that people couldn’t get away with not sharing their perspective while she was running a meeting, something he expects to carry over to the Education Department.
The primary responsibility of DeVos’s new job is to run a department charged with making sure that children from all backgrounds have access to quality education, a very different mandate from leading a church, foundation, or the Michigan GOP. And one teacher and fellow Calvin alum who has interacted with DeVos in several capacities said that he’s troubled by what he sees as her endorsement of policies that disadvantage large numbers of low-income children even as he appreciates that a good number of low-income Grand Rapids families feel they have benefited personally from her generosity. While a family with resources and time can take advantage of the option to choose a school, other families are left behind, particularly in places that don’t have a robust network of community organizations and private donors, he said, echoing an argument frequently put forth by teachers’ unions and backed up by research. He was also put off by an opinion piece DeVos penned in the mid-1990s, in which she suggested that she expected the politicians she donated to to advocate for her beliefs. “I joke that the trinity to them is God, country, and business, and I think that’s what troubles me,” he said.
Many of the people I spoke with for this story say they are equally troubled by her first month on the job. The week I was in Michigan, DeVos praised historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) for being “pioneers” of school choice before walking the comments back. (The schools were created specifically because black students did not have the choice to attend white colleges.) Before that, she drew the ire of already wary public-school teachers by saying that instructors at a school she’d just visited were “waiting to be told what they have to do.” During a painful confirmation hearing, DeVos seemed not to understand the basics of the debate about how student success should be measured, and she told the senator representing Sandy Hook that guns might be necessary in schools to protect against grizzly bears.
“Just jaw-droppingly, astonishingly ignorant,” said one person involved in Christian education in the area, who, like others, asked not to be named, regarding the hearing and DeVos’s subsequent comments about HBCUs. “I think they live in such an insulated world that they don’t run into people who think very differently than them, and people who do think differently want their money,” said another.
Yet even where they have concerns, some locals appreciate DeVos’s willingness to stand by her convictions. The secretary reportedly expressed reservations about eliminating protections for transgender students that were created under the Obama administration but was told by President Trump, at the urging of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to stand down.
“There’s some honor in doing what you believe is right,” said Nolan Wolffis, a student at Calvin who, along with many of his classmates and professors, has watched the national debate about DeVos unfold with mixed feelings. “I just question whether she’s right.” Or, as he put it moments later, “You can be bad at your job but still a good person.”
Emily Jan contributed reporting. Nshira Turkson contributed research.
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.