Donald Trump’s nominee to run the federal Department of Education could make the dreams of Orthodox Jewish education advocates come true.
Betsy DeVos has been in the trenches of the public education wars for years, funding and operating advocacy groups that have worked arm in arm with Orthodox organizations to push a so-called “school choice” agenda. Union leaders are appalled by the nomination, saying that DeVos opposes public education itself.
But Orthodox Jewish education advocates are thrilled.
“It’s a big change,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, which has worked closely with DeVos on state-level campaigns. “In most Democratic administrations, the U.S. Department of Education is a wholly owned subsidiary of the national teachers unions. That’s not going to be the case if Betsy DeVos is going to be the secretary of Education.”
Since most public education policy in the United States is made by state and local governments and school boards, the secretary of Education’s role is somewhat constrained. But Orthodox advocates say that, from her post, DeVos could make federal funding programs friendlier to the needs of private and religious schools.
“We’re hoping that there can be programs at the federal level, particularly in the form of tax credits and other kinds of things, that can also deliver direct funding to nonpublic school families,” Diament said.
DeVos still must be confirmed by the Senate, which will happen sometime after Trump’s inauguration in January.
DeVos, the billionaire sister of the controversial Iraq War-era private army entrepreneur Erik Prince, has been a leader in the education reform movement through her philanthropy and her leadership of advocacy organizations. A supporter of voucher programs, which use public funds to subsidize tuitions at private and religious schools, DeVos has pushed for change in state legislatures across the country to improve prospects for nonpublic education.
DeVos’s advocacy group, the American Federation for Children, also supports scholarship tax credit programs, which provide special state tax breaks in return for donations to private school scholarship funds.
Her interests align with Orthodox Jewish groups like the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America, which have fought alongside DeVos’s American Federation for Children for tax-credit programs, which the Jewish groups hope will make religious education more affordable for Jewish families.
For the most part, the Orthodox advocates say that they aren’t looking for a big-ticket item, like a federal school voucher program, from DeVos if she is confirmed to run the DOE. Instead, they’re hoping for something they’ve been slowly working toward for decades: a federal education bureaucracy that’s more open to supporting religious schools in a variety of ways.
“What I do hope, and I’m confident will happen, is that you’ll have a Department of Education that is more private school-friendly,” said Agudath Israel’s national director of state relations, A.D. Motzen.
Union leaders, meanwhile, are raising alarms about DeVos.
Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, called DeVos the “most ideological, anti-public education nominee” since the position of secretary of Education was created in 1979.
Weingarten, who is Jewish, also noted that DeVos had no classroom experience. “The sum total of her involvement has been spending her family’s wealth in an effort to dismantle public education in Michigan,” Weingarten said. “Every American should be concerned that she would impose her reckless and extreme ideology on the nation.”
Union advocates argue that DeVos and her allies seek to undermine the public schools. They oppose voucher programs and charter schools, and see DeVos as a leading donor behind the nationwide spread of both.
Some Jewish groups, too, have been critical of the selection of DeVos. In a statement, the associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Barbara Weinstein, said the organization hoped that DeVos would reject voucher programs, which, the RAC said, “[take] tax dollars from the public school system and puts them towards private education.”
Still, it’s not just Orthodox schools that benefit when the Orthodox advocates have their way. Liberal and community Jewish day schools, too, benefit from tax credits and even from voucher programs pursued by the Orthodox organizations.
In Florida, DeVos’s organization collaborated with the O.U. to defend a tax credit program that benefits Jewish day schools. “They’ve been very involved in protecting the program from attempts to challenge it,” said Maury Litwack, the O.U.’s director of state political affairs. “Their organization was instrumental in being a voice.”
Litwack said that at the federal level, he hoped DeVos would keep nonpublic and religious schools in mind while creating new funding programs. And he said he hoped that she would work to bring more funding to nonpublic schools through pre-existing federally mandated funding streams.
Motzen said that his organization had worked with DeVos’s group in a number of states on programs for such things as school vouchers.
“Parents in Jewish day schools across the country, from all denominations, are currently benefiting from the work of Betsy DeVos, the [DeVos-headed] American Federation for Children, Agudath Israel and many others,” Motzen said.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.