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Trump Chooses Michigan Philanthropist Betsy DeVos As Secretary Of Education

Nov 23, 2016
Originally published on November 23, 2016 5:08 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Rumors are swirling over who President-elect Donald Trump will tap for his cabinet. Earlier we said he had chosen his former rival Ben Carson for secretary of housing and urban development. That's not been yet confirmed, though Carson says he's been offered the position and it considering it.

Meanwhile two new nominations have been confirmed. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is Trump's pick for ambassador to the U.N., and Betsy DeVos is his choice for education secretary. DeVos is a Republican Party activist from Michigan and a strong supporter of school choice.

Joining us now to talk about this is NPR's Eric Westervelt with our Ed team. Hey there, Eric.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So begin just by telling us a little bit about Ms. DeVos's experience in education.

WESTERVELT: Yeah, she's really not that well-known outside of Michigan philanthropic and party - Republican Party activist circles. I mean - and Audie, this pick is really all about Trump advocating for school choice. DeVos is a longtime advocate for charter schools and school vouchers. She leads the education group American Federation for Children which has made private school choice its main concern. The group says on its website, Audie, it works to provide families, quote, "with access to great schools through private school choice."

And in addition, she and her husband were big, main backers of a failed ballot initiative some 16 years ago to amend Michigan's Constitution. It was all about providing vouchers that would allow students to use public dollars to go to private schools. So this pick really shows, you know, school choice issues will be the core of Trump's education agenda.

If he talked about education at all during the campaign, Audie, it was either to bash the Common Core State Standards or mention choice. And he wants to invest some 20 billion in federal money toward choice programs for low-income students. But he hasn't said where that 20 billion will come from.

CORNISH: And of course school choice has been a long education priority for many conservatives. Do you see a battle ahead, though? I mean the movement has a lot of detractors.

WESTERVELT: Well, exactly. I do see battles ahead. I mean school choice is highly controversial. Public school advocates and teachers unions often hate choice plans. Now, whether it comes in the form of a voucher or a scholarship tax credit, the plans at their core allow families to use public funding for private schools.

So critics say, you know, this is draining money away from public schools, and if it's going to a charter school, maybe it's under-regulated, this voucher money. Or they say it can amount to kind of profiteering if the money is going for a for-profit school or for a charter school managed by a for-profit company. So there certainly will be strong opposition I would think from Democrats and certainly teachers union and public school advocates.

CORNISH: What's been the reaction so far among Trump supporters?

WESTERVELT: Well, it's interesting. It's kind of this split, you know? I've talked to some Trump supporters who - at their core, they want the Common Core State Standards overturned even though this is a state-passed initiative. But they want the Trump administration to incentivize overturning Common Core.

And they're a bit - feel a bit angry and betrayed because Betsy DeVos has made some statements in the past and sits on the board of an education group that has supported Common Core. But school choice and charter school advocates are over the moon. They think this is the choice, you know, Washington really needs.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Eric Westervelt. He joined us from our New York bureau. Eric, thanks so much.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.