Donald Trump has selected as education secretary a Michigan Republican who has championed charter schools and contributed to efforts to ban same-sex marriage, raising questions about the next administration’s treatment of LGBT students.
On Wednesday, the president-elect announced Betsy DeVos as his choice for the post as head of the Department of Education, citing her record as a businessperson, philanthropist and advocate for education reform.
“Betsy DeVos is a brilliant and passionate education advocate,” Trump said. “Under her leadership we will reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families. I am pleased to nominate Betsy as Secretary of the Department of Education.”
DeVos’s role may be temporary if Trump gets his way and fulfills his campaign promise of abolishing the Department of Education, although that would require expending of a lot of political capital even with a Republican-controlled Congress.
Trump’s pick invoked the ire of progressive advocates due to DeVos’s support of charter schools, which is in line with Trump’s vision to offer parents vouchers to allow children to attend private schools using public education funds.
Randi Weingarten, a lesbian and president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement DeVos is “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward” since the establishment of the Department of Education.
“In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America,” Weingarten said. “DeVos has no meaningful experience in the classroom or in our schools. The sum total of her involvement has been spending her family’s wealth in an effort to dismantle public education in Michigan. Every American should be concerned that she would impose her reckless and extreme ideology on the nation.”
But DeVos and her family also have a history of opposing LGBT rights that may be an indication of how she would guide schools to treat LGBT students as head of the Education Department.
According to a 2013 report in the Michigan LGBT publication PrideSource.com, Devos and her husband Dick Devos led the effort to put an anti-gay marriage amendment on the ballot in 2004 and contributed more than $200,000 to the campaign, which ultimately succeeded. Dick DeVos also contributed $100,000 in 2008 to pass Amendment 2 in Florida, an effort that banned same-sex marriage in the state.
In 2012, the revelation that the Douglas and Maria DeVos Foundation, financially supported by Betsy Devos’s brother-in-law and Amway president Doug DeVos, donated $500,000 to the National Organization for Marriage in 2009 prompted calls in the LGBT community for a boycott.
Betsy DeVos’s father, Edgar Prince, was a co-founder of the anti-LGBT Family Research Council, and her mother, Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, contributed $75,000 to pass the anti-gay marriage amendment in Michigan.
Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal said his organization is “quite concerned” about DeVos leading the Department of Education, calling her “another arch-conservative who is totally out of the mainstream.”
“Lambda Legal plans to monitor closely any changes sought to be made by the Education Department and the Trump administration generally on protections of LGBT students against discrimination and bullying, as well as other issues that could affect our and allied communities, and to fight to preserve the gains we have made,” Davidson said.
One thing DeVos could reverse as head of the Education Department is guidance from the Obama administration informing schools that discriminating against transgender students amounts to a a violation of Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972. That guidance, which Trump promised during his presidential campaign to rescind, required schools to allow transgender students to use the restroom consistent with their gender identity.
The Office of Civil Rights within DeVos’s Education Department could also more generally be thwarted from investigating and resolving complaints from LGBT students who say they faced discrimination in schools and the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Washington Blade placed a call Wedneday to the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation seeking comment on the way DeVos would guide schools in treating LGBT students.
Despite the anti-gay donations from DeVos and her family, as a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party she at one time spoke out against anti-gay rhetoric within the GOP.
DeVos was among those condemning fellow Michigan Republican Dave Agema, who represents the state on the Republican National Committee, for his anti-Muslim and anti-gay comments. According to a 2014 report in the Detroit News, DeVos said she left messages with Agema to “encourage him to do the right thing. He should resign his position as national committeeman.”
When Agema didn’t respond, DeVos said she called Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus, asking him to either find a way to dump Agema or marginalize him to make it clear the party does not support his views.
“He has a right to express his ideas and opinions, but he also has a responsibility to the party” DeVos was quoted as saying at the time. “He has damaged his position and his party. He reflects badly on Republicans and on Michigan.”
Although rules prevent the Republican National Committee from ejecting a member, the committee expressed its displeasure by censuring Agema. Nonetheless, Agema’s views are consistent with the 2016 Republican Party platform, which opposes same-sex marriage, rejects non-discrimination protections for LGBT people under the law and hints at support for widely discredited “ex-gay” conversion therapy.
Additionally, in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Orlando, Fla., claiming the lives of 49 people, the DeVos family committed $400,000 to the OneOrlando Fund, which seeks to aid victims of the massacre, according to a report in the Orlando Sentinel.
Stephanie White, executive director of Equality Michigan, said she’s “cautiously hopeful” about the DeVos appointment because the nominee has “demonstrated a capacity to grow over the years in her understanding and relationship towards LGBT people.”
“Of course so much depends upon who she appoints, especially to the office of civil rights,” White said. “She has stated that she believes all kids deserve a quality education. I am hopeful that she will understand that ‘all kids’ includes both gay and especially transgender kids as well.”
White said DeVos has undergone an “evolution” on LGBT rights, attributing that to the Michigan Republican’s relationship with her long-time trusted adviser Greg McNeilly, who’s gay.
DeVos’s appointment is subject to Senate confirmation. Under the rules instituted by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) when he served as a majority leader of the chamber, ending a filibuster on confirmation would require a bare majority of 51 votes. Another 51 votes are necessary to confirm her to the seat.
Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, said in a statement she’s “deeply concerned” about the DeVos appointment, saying the nominee”s advocacy for vouchers undermines protections for LGBT students.
“True educational equity requires schools that serve the most at-risk students, including students of color; students with disabilities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning students; and English-language learners,” Byard said. “Vouchers and tuition tax credits do not advance this cause. As we have seen over the past eight years, federal civil rights oversight of education is essential to ensure that all students in this country have real access to opportunity.”