President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, faced questioning about her family's donations to conservative Christian organizations during her Senate hearing on Tuesday after a media report highlighted how her family has donated millions to social conservative organizations and Christian schools.
DeVos, a school choice advocate and philanthropist who is married to Amway heir Dick DeVos, was announced in late November as Trump's pick to lead the Department of Education. Since then, she has been criticized by many on the Left for her advocacy work for school voucher programs that would allow public education funds to follow students who decided to attend private schools.
As DeVos has lobbied for decades to expand charter schools and for private school voucher programs in Michigan and around the country, Trump has tapped her to champion his vow to "establish the national goal of providing school choice to every American child living in poverty."
As with most of Trump's cabinet picks, media outlets have done their digging to see if they can find anything of note in DeVos' past might cause trouble for her in the confirmation process.
What the left-leaning news outlet Mother Jones found when analyzing 15 years of tax filings from the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation was that the DeVoses, who are motivated by their Christian faith, prefer to give their money to Christian schools and organizations aligned with traditional Christian beliefs.
"Although the DeVoses have rarely commented on how their religious views affect their philanthropy and political activism, their spending speaks volumes," the article states. "During that period, the DeVoses spent nearly $100 million in philanthropic giving. ... While Dick and Betsy DeVos have donated large amounts to hospitals, health research, and arts organizations, these records show an overwhelming emphasis on funding Christian schools and evangelical missions, and conservative, free-market think tanks, like the Acton Institute and the Mackinac Center, that want to shrink the public sector in every sphere, including education."
Mother Jones reports that of the $100 million the foundation donated to philanthropic causes from 1999 until 2014, half of it went to Christian organizations.
According to a chart produced by Mother Jones, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation gave at least $8.6 million to private Christian schools during that time period. By comparison, the foundation gave $5.2 million to charter schools (4.8 million to one charter school they founded) and just $59,750 to public schools during that same time period. This means that less than one percent of their charitable giving toward schools actually went to public schools.
"When it comes to traditional public schools run by the districts and accountable to democratically elected school boards — the ones that 86 percent of American students attend — the DeVoses were far less generous," the article states.
"But the DeVoses' foundation giving shows the couple's clearest preference is for Christian private schools," the article adds. "From 1999 to 2014, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation gave out $2,396,525 to the Grand Rapids Christian High School Association, $652,000 to the Ada Christian School, and $458,000 to Holland Christian Schools."
The article asserts that the $8.6 million donated to private religious schools is "a reflection of the DeVoses' lifelong dedication to building 'God's Kingdom' through education."
The article also points out how the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation has given over $1.2 million to the conservative think tank Action Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, $232,390 to the Foundation for Traditional Values and $275,000 to the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family.
In analyzing the tax filings of her parents' organizations, the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation which she was the vice president of, Mother Jones found that the Prince Foundation had donated $6.1 million to the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, groups that promote the biblical definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman, between 2001 and 2014.
During her Senate hearing Tuesday, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked about her family's donations to groups like FRC and Focus on the Family, which supports counseling for those who are struggling with same-sex attraction and wish to change, sometimes called "Sexual Orientation Change Efforts."
"Mrs. DeVos, your family has a long history of supporting anti-LGBT causes including donating millions of dollars to groups that push conversion therapy, the practice of trying to change someone's sexual orientation or gender identity," Franken stated. "For example, you and your family have given over $10 million to Focus on the Family, an organization that currently states on its website that, 'homosexual strugglers can and do change their sexual behavior and identity.'"
Franken bluntly asked: "Mrs. DeVos, do you still believe in conversion therapy?"
"Senator Franken, I've never believed in that," DeVos responded. "First of all, let me say I fully embrace equality and I believe in the innate value of every single human being and that all students, no matter their age, should be able to attend a school and feel safe and be free of discrimination. So let's start there and let me just say that your characterization of our contributions I don't think accurately reflects those of my family. I would hope you wouldn't include other family members beyond my core family."
DeVos is also facing criticism over the fact that she donated $10,000 to an advocacy group that is actively trying to rescind Obama administration guidance that lessen the burden of proof colleges and universities need to be able to discipline and expel students accused of sexual assault.
Politico published an article last week that attempted to paint DeVos in a negative light by stating that her donations to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education "send a troubling signal."
Politico quotes Lisa Maatz, a policy adviser at the American Association of University Women, as saying that DeVos' donations to the organization raises a "red flag."
Coming to DeVos' defense was the conservative outlet, The Weekly Standard, which points out that despite what the Politico article might lead readers to believe, DeVos thinks "sexual assault on campus is very bad, and people guilty of it should be punished."
"Incredibly, Politico's entire article hangs on DeVos and her husband's donations to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a libertarian organization that's been fighting for free speech rights on campuses for decades," Weekly Standard reporter senior writer Mark Hemingway writes. "FIRE has lately taken up the issue of campus sexual assault, because they've noted, quite correctly, that those accused of sexual assault on campuses are subject to hysterical attacks and frequently denied the most basic due process rights."
In her hearing before the Senate education committee, DeVos couldn't promise to uphold the Obama administration guidence to public schools on sexual violence.
While DeVos has faced opposition from teachers unions like the American Federation of Teachers, who claims that DeVos is the most "anti-public education nominee" in history, she is supported by as many as 20 sitting governors.
Last week, 20 governors signed onto a letter sent to the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
The letter, which calls on the Senate to confirm DeVos, was signed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Arizona Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Indiana Gov. Sam Brownback, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and others.
While critics on the Left claim that DeVos is a bad pick for children in public schools, The Detroit News wrote an unsigned op-ed explaining that liberal fears are unfounded and that a DeVos Education Department will actually be "good for public education."
"The hysteria surrounding the West Michigan native, fanned by teachers unions, is overblown, and much of the criticism overlooks the work DeVos has actually done," the editorial states.
"While DeVos is known largely for her work to promote school choice, she's equally strong an advocate for school accountability," it adds. "The groups she's supported in Michigan and nationwide have fought for meaningful school grading systems and third grade reading benchmarks, among other reforms — for all schools."
In her hearing, DeVos asserted that she shares "Trump's view that it's time to shift the debate from what the system thinks is best for kids to what moms and dads want, expect and deserve."
Trump has vowed to reprioritize $20 billion in existing federal education funding to establish a block grant for the 11 million school-age children living in poverty in American to provide them with school choice.
"Not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them," DeVos said in response to a question from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., about whether she will propose funding cuts for public schools. "I'm hoping we can work together to find common ground."
In her opening remarks, DeVos steered clear from addressing her stance on the Common Core set of state education standards, which many conservatives oppose because they feel that it takes curriculum decisions out of the hands of parents and school districts.
Although DeVos has supported groups in the past that have supported Common Core, she wrote in a blog post after her nomination was announced that she is not a supporter of Common Core and believes it is "federalized boondoggle."