President-elect Donald Trump has nominated Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos to be the Secretary of Education in his upcoming administration. If that name sounds familiar, it should. The DeVos family is a major advocate for gutting public pensions in Michigan. Should Betsy DeVos be confirmed by the Senate as Education Secretary, she could pose a significant threat to public pensions for teachers across the country.
Betsy DeVos is married to Dick DeVos, the former president of the Amway Corporation (founded by his father) and a former Republican nominee for governor of Michigan. Betsy DeVos is herself a former Chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party. Betsy and Dick DeVos are strong supporters of charter schools, school voucher programs, and the school privatization movement writ large. They have donated millions of dollars to foundations and PACs that support various school privatization initiatives and they were instrumental in creating Detroit’s charter school system.
The DeVos family is also supportive of anti-worker causes. They were key players in Michigan’s move to a “right-to-work” state in 2012. Additionally, each year the DeVos family hosts the West Michigan Policy Forum. At this event they decide what issue will be their public policy priority for the upcoming year. In 2016, they announced that gutting public pensions in Michigan would be their priority for 2017. During Michigan’s lame duck legislative session in December 2016, anti-pension legislators attempted to move a bill in the Michigan senate to eliminate pensions for public school teachers. The legislation failed due to a backlash from working people, but those legislators have already pledged to try again during the 2017 legislative session.
What Betsy DeVos illustrates so clearly is the connection between the attacks on public pensions and the school privatization movement. School voucher programs and charter schools starve traditional public schools of funding. School privatization advocates also seek to weaken the teaching profession by eliminating traditional pensions. As you know from reading this blog, most public school teachers in the United States still participate in traditional defined benefit pensions. Charter schools and private schools often do not offer their employees the opportunity to participate in teacher pension plans. As we’ve emphasized before, traditional pensions promote retention of quality teachers and education research clearly shows that teachers increase in effectiveness over the first three to five years of teaching. Students benefit from retaining these skilled teachers for their full careers. A constant churn of new teachers that only teach for a few years harms students because those teachers leave just as- or before- they reach their peak effectiveness as teachers. To the extent that pensions encourage teachers to remain for 15, 20, or 30 years, they raise the overall quality of teaching in those schools.
Betsy DeVos has never attended a public school and did not send her own children to public schools. She does not have a degree in education and has no experience as a teacher, principal, or school system superintendent. However, she is a committed supporter of the school privatization movement and her family is committed to eliminating public pensions in Michigan, especially for public school teachers. As Secretary of Education, she would have little direct impact on teacher pensions at the local, county, and state level. However, if she has the opportunity to deal with public pensions at all, it seems certain that her position will be hostile. Furthermore, to the extent that she could use her position to advance school privatization nationwide, she would weaken teacher pension systems and the secure retirement they provide.
The Senate begins consideration of her nomination as Secretary of Education today. If confirmed, we could see devastating impacts on the quality of public education and the retirement security of the devoted teachers educating our children.