Who is Betsy DeVos and why is she visiting a liberal-leaning school like Kansas City Academy?
By Kathy Feist
As Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s visit to a local private school, Kansas City Academy, draws near, it’s important to take a closer look at just who is this woman, and why would a conservative Christian Trump administrator be interested in a liberal leaning school like Kansas City Academy.
Kansas City Academy
DeVos will be visiting Kansas City Academy (KCA) on Friday morning to view a “school that works.” A little background on KCA first. KCA started off as a Catholic boarding school for girls called the Loretto Academy located in the Westport area. It was run by the Sisters of Loretto. (One remaining nun still teaches there.) In 1966, the school moved to 12611 Wornall Rd., now home to the Lutheran elementary and high school. After all Loretto schools were closed, several family and community members chose to keep the school going. In 1984, keeping the same academic philosophy set forth by the Loretto school, which included concern for the welfare of others, the name was changed to Kansas City Academy. It eventually moved from its campus in south Kansas City to a smaller facility at its present location off 79th and Wornall.
KCA is a 6th – 12th grade school that consists of about 70 children. It fosters freedom of expression in its students, a respect for individuality, independent thinking and creativity. It’s a school where it is not unusual to find transgender students, multi-colored heads of hair, and interesting clothing choices. What you won’t find there is bullying. And rarely yet, anyone who votes red.
Betsy DeVos’ Background
Betsy DeVos was born in 1958 to a family of Calvinist in Holland, Michigan. Her father, Edgar Prince, made his billions designing interior parts for automobiles, particularly the illuminated, mirrored sun visors. DeVos and her siblings attended a strict Christian school that forbade dancing and football. Her family broke the rules though and threw a prom that included dancing. The family was raised with a disdain toward welfare programs. They made large donations to the Family Research Council, a lobbying group that seeks to “advance faith, family and freedom” in public policy.
Devos attended Calvin College, a Christian liberal arts college, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She majored in political science and business. It was there that she met her husband Dick, whose father Richard made his riches as a co-founder of Amway, a pyramid marketing business whose salespeople work from home selling health, beauty and home products.
The Richard DeVos family has given at least $44 million to the Republican Party since 1997. They own the Orlando Magic basketball team and have contributed to conservative think tanks. Betsy and Dick DeVos have their own philanthropy, which donates money to Christian churches and charter schools, as well as to the X-Prize, which awards innovators in science and technology, (including carbon solutions) and the Kennedy Center, which supports the arts, and in which Betsy sat on the board for six years.
The Devoses raised four children who attended Christian private schools. For a time, Betsy home schooled her oldest daughter. They often pulled their children out of school to travel abroad once Dick took over Amway.
DeVos’ defining moment in education came when she toured a school for disadvantaged kids in Grand Rapids. She was moved by the sacrifice parents went through to pay the $5000 to attend the school. The DeVoses began supporting students who attended the school, sometimes an entire classroom full. In the mid-90s, they decided to support 4,000 low-income families with scholarships to private schools. They received 64,000 applications. It was at this point they decided more needed to be done. They became active proponent of the school voucher program, which are government credits that help families pay for a private school of their choice.
DeVos has sat on numerous boards that promote the voucher system. She has stated that “a child’s progress–or lack thereof–is fully transparent to his or her parents.” She believes that the government should invest in “individual students, not buildings or systems.” And if anything, the nation’s education problems should be solved locally and not through a “giant bureaucracy or a federal department.”
But it seems with more involvement came more passion. From here, things get quite complicated as the DeVos’s story goes from heartwarming to an overzealous push for vouchers.
She founded the Great Lakes Education Project, which fosters the growth of “charters or vouchers or magnet schools or contract schools or virtual schools or options that had not yet been developed” Through the GLEP and the DeVos’s financial muscle with politicians, Michigan passed a law in 2011 allowing unregulated proliferation of charters throughout the state.
When she was nominated as Secretary of Education, her lack of experience within the public school system outraged many. The votes for confirmation were evenly split. Vice President Mike Pence broke the tie with the deciding vote.
DeVos’ public position on various issues is well known and highly controversial. But there are less known things about DeVos that might answer the question as to why she is visiting KCA.
Transgender – When Trump rescinded Obama’s directive to protect transgender students, DeVos apparently opposed the president. According to the New York Times, the “bathroom bill” debate caused a rift between DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions wanted to quickly repeal the directive. DeVos reportedly refused to sign off on it. Sessions went directly to Trump, who persuaded DeVos to fall in line. Afterwards, DeVos emphasized her dedication to preventing discrimination and bullying against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. In personal life, DeVos seems to support those who have same sex marriages or are transgender.
Diversity – DeVos seems to welcome diversity. Jason Botel, a progressive Democrat, is DeVos’ deputy assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. Candice E. Jackson, a sexual assault survivor who is currently in a same-sex marriage, is acting director of the Office of Civil Rights. And Jose Viana, an assistant deputy education secretary, is a second-generation American who has helped undocumented immigrants.
Vouchers – As mentioned, DeVos is passionate about giving families the freedom of school choice. Since the voucher program started 25 years ago, there has been ongoing debate whether students fare any better or worse academically that their public school counterparts. Equally, the debate flares regarding whether the voucher program defunds the public school system or has no effect. That is not up for discussion here. In the analysis of why DeVos would visit a school like KCA, one must look at why she thinks it is a “school that works.” Dr. Patrick J. Wolf, a professor at the University of Arkansas who tracks data on vouchers, says that switching to a smaller, private school “tends to have a positive effect on students. This is not always seen on the test score side,” he emphasizes, “but that is not all that important to the parents.” He says that data show that “the increasingly common reason” for pulling children out of the public school system and placing them in smaller, private schools is to “escape bullying.” With teen suicide rates reaching record highs, this is information not to be taken lightly. The students who attend KCA seem to reflect Wolf’s data. And if you get a chance to visit KCA, you will also see how this tight-knit community of students is indeed a school that works.
Kathy Feist is the editor of the Martin City Telegraph. Both of her children have attended the Kansas City Academy.