Exclusive: Betsy DeVos' family foundation funnels money to right-wing groups that boost her agenda

Trump's education secretary is "effectively funding an outside propaganda operation," says watchdog group

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published December 19, 2019 6:00AM (EST)

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The family foundation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her billionaire husband, Dick, gave more than $1 million to purportedly “independent” right-wing groups that have helped boost her assault on public education, according to a recent tax filing obtained by the government watchdog group Allied Progress and shared with Salon.

The 2018 filing shows that the couple put $5 million into the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation while doling out more than $11.6 million in contributions and pledges. As in previous years, much of the funding went to Christian charities and local initiatives in and around Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the couple’s home. But more than $1 million went to supposedly independent right-wing think tanks and groups like the American Enterprise Institute and the National Review Institute, which have heaped praise on Secretary DeVos and helped promote her agenda.

“Secretary DeVos is effectively funding an outside propaganda operation to help her bash teachers’ unions and promote private voucher schemes that undermine public education,” said Jeremy Funk, communications director for Allied Progress, a nonpartisan watchdog organization.

The DeVos Foundation contributed $500,000 to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) for public policy research last year and pledged another $250,000 in future payments to the organization, according to the filing.

AEI, whose board includes Dick DeVos, is a libertarian think tank that maintains a “close relationship with incoming Republican administrations," according to The Guardian, and assists them with “staff and readymade policies.”

AEI officials have repeatedly publicly praised DeVos and her policies.

Frederick Hess, AEI’s director of education policy studies, recently backed DeVos’ push to gut the Borrower Defense Rule, which allows defrauded students to seek debt relief. Hess praised DeVos’ proposal to base debt forgiveness on student income as “clearly better for colleges, taxpayers, and students” in a National Review op-ed. A judge later blocked the initiative, although DeVos is now implementing new rules that again seek to restrict the amount of debt that can be forgiven to students defrauded by for-profit colleges.

AEI senior fellow Peter Wallison also praised DeVos’ controversial changes to Title IX, which made it harder to report sexual abuse on campus, in an op-ed last year. Wallison wrote that DeVos’ rule change puts “sexual harassment rules back into compliance with the Constitution and laws” and “should be an example for other administrative agencies.”

The DeVos Foundation also donated $10,000 to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group whose top officials have publicly backed DeVos’ proposal to require colleges to allow cross-examination of sexual assault and harassment accusers that advocates say would discourage victims from coming forward.

FIRE later promoted DeVos’ comments at the Independent Women’s Forum earlier this year, where she criticized Title IX.

“FIRE has long expressed sentiments much like that of Secretary DeVos” on Title IX, the group said, and its leadership was “heartened by the positions signaled in Secretary DeVos’ speech.”

The DeVos Foundation also made a $350,000 contribution to the Mackinac Center, according to the filing.

The Mackinac Center is a longtime opponent of teacher unions that urged teachers to opt out of their unions after the Supreme Court ruled that non-union workers cannot be forced to pay fees to public-sector unions.

Secretary DeVos herself attended Supreme Court arguments in the case. DeVos is a longtime supporter of “efforts to reduce the power of public-sector unions” and previously made a $125,000 donation to a Michigan group that opposed collective-bargaining rights, according to The Washington Post. Employees at the Department of Education employees have also accused DeVos of “gutting a long-standing labor agreement” and enforcing a new deal that was “roundly rejected” by their union, according to the Post.

The DeVos Foundation also contributed $100,000 to the National Review Institute, whose board of trustees includes Dick DeVos, according to the filing.

After receiving the donation in 2018, the National Review Institute hosted Secretary DeVos at its 2019 Ideas Summit in March, where she vowed to make school choice a “top priority.”

That same month, The National Review praised DeVos’ school choice plan and her Education Freedom Scholarship program, a tax-deductible private scholarship program similar to school vouchers that critics say will reduce tax revenue that could otherwise pay teacher salaries. The National Review hailed it as a “bold” plan and a “huge step in the right direction.”

The DeVos Foundation also contributed $10,000 to the Institute for Justice, according to the filing, a group that funds a “variety” of lawsuits defending school vouchers and tax credit programs supported by DeVos, according to The Times.

Prior to the contribution, DeVos met with the group’s top officials so they could “suggest a few areas where the department could facilitate school-choice efforts and offer the [secretary] help in those areas,” The Times reported.

Earlier this year, the Education Department hosted a blog post by the Institute for Justice’s Tim Keller in which he promoted school choice efforts.

The foundation’s 2017 filings showed similar contributions that included nearly $3.2 million to conservative nonprofits that favor school choice and promote other right-wing policies.

Along with giving or pledging $1 million to AEI in 2017, the DeVos Foundation also contributed or pledged $1 million to the Alliance for School Choice, which Secretary DeVos previously chaired before joining the Trump administration. DeVos also chaired the American Federation for Children, which controls the Alliance for School Choice. The federation has continued to lobby the Education Department even after DeVos took over.

Along with contributing to right-wing organizations that promote education policy, the DeVos Foundation has also contributed to numerous advocacy groups that oppose abortion and deny climate change.

Education Department press secretary Angela Morabito told Salon that questions about the contributions should be referred to the foundation. The DeVos Foundation did not immediately return a request for comment. Dick DeVos told MLive in 2017 that the majority of their donations are not political.

"These are not political organizations that are advocating or advancing any political agenda. They are trying to serve people," he said.

Mark Brewer, the former longtime chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, dismissed the other contributions as “nothing more than a smokescreen to divert attention away from the disclosures of the political contributions."

Lonnie Scott, the head of progressive advocacy group Progress Michigan, told NPR that the family foundation’s contributions are an example of how conservatives wield their charitable foundations’ checkbooks for political power.

"I think what we see overall is really the purchasing of political power that crosses the spectrum of political and foundation giving," he said. "The right is very quick to use foundation funding in a way that the left does not in supporting specific policies."

See the DeVos Family Foundation's full 990 tax filing below:

DeVos Foundation 990 2018 by Igor Derysh on Scribd

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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