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.