What you should know about Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary pick — and what her choice might tell us about his plans


Update: President-elect Donald Trump has reportedly tapped Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos to be his education secretary.

“I am honored to work with the President-elect on his vision to make American education great again,” DeVos tweeted Wednesday. “The status quo in ed is not acceptable.”

DeVos, an advocate for school vouchers, has chaired the Michigan Republican party and played a key role in some major education policy decisions there in recent years. But unlike former D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee and charter-school leader Eva Moskowitz, two others Trump considered for the education secretary position, DeVos has kept a relatively low national profile. She has neither worked in public education nor chosen public schools for her own children, who attended private Christian schools.

Earlier this week, Chalkbeat compiled a few things we could reasonably surmise from a DeVos pick:

1. Trump intends to go through with his sweeping voucher plan.

On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to use federal funds to encourage states to make school choice available to all poor students, including through vouchers that allow families to take public funding to private schools.

That’s exactly what DeVos has zealously worked to make happen on a state-by-state basis for decades. In 2000, she helped get a ballot measure before Michigan voters that would have enshrined a right to vouchers in the state’s Constitution. After the measure failed, she and her husband formed a political action committee to support pro-voucher candidates nationally. Less than a decade later, the group counted a 121-60 win-loss record.

One recipient of its support: former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who created the voucher program that Trump’s vice president-elect, Mike Pence, later expanded. Indeed, DeVos’s vision puts her more in line with Pence, who has supported private school vouchers for both low- and middle-income families, than with Trump, whose plan extends only to poor families.

Trump also vowed to promote publicly funded but privately managed charter schools. But DeVos, whose husband founded an aviation-themed charter school in their hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, has expressed reservations about them.

“Charter schools take a while to start up and get operating,” she told Philanthropy Roundtable in 2013. “Meanwhile, there are very good non-public schools, hanging on by a shoestring, that can begin taking students today.”

2. School oversight might not be the education department’s top concern.

DeVos and her husband played a role in getting Michigan’s charter school law passed in 1993, and ever since have worked to protect charters from additional regulation. When Michigan lawmakers this year were considering a measure that would have added oversight for charter schools in Detroit, members of the DeVos family poured $1.45 million into legislators’ campaign coffers — an average of $25,000 a day for seven weeks. Oversight was not included in the final legislation.

The DeVos influence is one reason that Michigan’s charter sector is among the least regulated in the country. Roughly 80 percent of charters in Michigan are run by private companies, far more than in any other state. And state authorities have done little up to now to ensure that charter schools are effectively serving students, eliciting concern from current federal authorities.

“There are a lot of schools that are doing poorly and charter authorizers do not seem to be taking the necessary actions to either improve performance or close those underperforming charters,” current U.S. Secretary of Education John King told Chalkbeat about Michigan last month.

3. The Common Core would remain a question mark.

DeVos hasn’t been outspoken about the Common Core, the shared learning standards adopted by most states in recent years. But some of her ties would suggest that she supports the effort to raise and standardize expectations of what students should learn in each grade. She’s on the board of Foundation for Excellence in Education, the group that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush founded to promote school choice and the Common Core.

On the campaign trail, Trump routinely denounced the standards — despite his having no authority to “repeal” them — in statements that won applause from conservatives and liberal parents and teachers alike. But his transition team said the meeting with DeVos “focused on the Common Core mission, and setting higher national standards and promoting the growth of school choice across the nation.”

The statement suggests a possible effort to achieve the standards’ goals without promoting the Common Core brand — exactly the middle path that many states have chosen as they revise the standards, often only lightly, and rename them.

4. The education secretary won’t be a counterweight to Republican officials.

Trump’s consideration of Moskowitz and Rhee, both self-identified Democrats, raised the hopes of some that the federal education department’s leader could counterbalance some more hard-right administration officials. (It also prompted one prominent education lobbying group to issue a statement calling on Democrats not to take a position in Trump’s administration.)

That hope would evaporate if DeVos is the choice, though there is some evidence that she is less extreme than some of the voices gaining prominence in Trump’s administration so far. For one, she did not support Trump even once he became the presumptive Republican nominee, throwing her vote as a party delegate instead behind Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Two years ago, she also publicly called for a Republican leader in Michigan to step down after he made anti-gay and anti-Muslim comments on social media.

But she is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican party leader who has been more conservative on education issues than some of her colleagues. In fact, DeVos stepped down as chair of Michigan’s Republican party in 2000 after the Republican governor declined to support vouchers. (She later took the position back.)

Outside of education, her family gave heavily to efforts to ban same sex-marriage in Michigan.

5. DeVos will have to operate outside of most of the world she has known.

Many of DeVos’ successes have resulted from using her family’s considerable financial resources. DeVos family foundations reported lifetime charitable giving of more than $1.2 billion earlier this year to institutions ranging from hospitals to arts organizations. Political donations — to oppose gay marriage, support vouchers, and sway lawmakers from increasing oversight to charter schools — came on top of that. As education secretary, she would not be able to rely on her personal wealth and approach to get things done.

Instead, she would have to operate within a complicated web of interests and priorities, including with education officials in states that did not support Trump. Her work up to now has been largely within the Republican Party, but she has expressed confidence in the past about being able to cross party lines.

“What we’ve tried to do is engage with Democrats, to make it politically safe for them to do what they know in their heart of hearts is the right thing,” DeVos said in 2013. “Education should be non-partisan.”

For Chalkbeat’s second birthday, two new additions to our team

In 30 days, we will celebrate our second anniversary as Chalkbeat. Remember when that logo and our lovely Chalkbeat-blue were brand-new and a little scary?

Two years later, wow. Who knew how much was possible in 24 months? We’ve merged and strengthened two beloved local news sites, expanded to two new communities, and reported stories that led to major funding increases,newly public databases, and op-ed’s galore. Most exciting for us, we’ve started to prove that the most endangered of all news species — the local kind, rooted in real communities — can thrive in a digital age after all.

As we step into 2016, the word on our minds is connection. So many people in this country care deeply about educational equity. Our charge is to make sure that everyone who cares has ready and consistent access to the information it takes to transform passion into informed action.

To do this, we’ve been focusing on building our team to include not only award-winning journalists, but also leaders who can help us keep pace with innovations in digital news and audience development.

We are thrilled to announce two major additions to the Chalkbeat team who will help steer us in this direction:

  • Kang-Xing (KX) Jin, a vice president of engineering at Facebook, joined Chalkbeat’s board of directors this summer. At Facebook, Kang-Xing’s teams are responsible for media (products for news, video, and public figures), ads in News Feed, and several of the company’s consumer products for sharing with friends, family, and groups. Prior to his current role, Kang-Xing helped build out the Facebook ads team from 2007 to 2012. He joined Facebook in 2006 as an engineer on the News Feed team after graduating from Harvard with a degree in Computer Science, summa cum laude. On the Chalkbeat board, Kang-Xing will combine his passion for education with his engineering and product savvy.
  • Ryan Sholin, a former director of product management at Gannett, joined Chalkbeat this week as our new director of product and growth. Ryan’s wide range of experience includes serving as a local reporter, a blogger, and an industry leader with experience helping news organizations make a difference at scale through online news design, audience development, and product creation. At Gannett, Ryan led various initiatives leveraging product creation to drive strategic organizational goals and better connect audiences with content. At Chalkbeat, he is passionate about ensuring that we reach all the people who care about educational equity as much as we do — and then serve them well.

Bringing on all-stars, of course, is just the start. One year from now, I hope we can report back that our Chalkbeat community has grown to ensure that more people who care about better schools for all kids are connected to the stories they need to fuel their thinking. And I hope we can do it by thanking not just KX and Ryan, but you.

Because, here’s the kicker:we’re hiring more people. This is your formal invitation to spread the word as we build the greatest Chalkbeat yet. We hope you’ll join us!

Join us Wednesday at 7 p.m. to chat with Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green about her new book

babtAfter wrapping up the Chalkbeat Book Club discussion of  our CEO Elizabeth Green’s new book “Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (And How to Teach It to Everyone)”, we’re excited to bring the conversation to a larger audience.

We’ll be hosting a live chat (embed coming soon) right here on Wednesday from 7-7:30 p.m. ET.  Until then, catch up with this Q&A, read over what we’ve discussed in the book club, and submit your questions in the comments section below.

See you Wednesday!

We’re excited to welcome our summer interns, more new hires

This time last year, Chalkbeat had nine employees. Today, we have 24 plus six summer interns (and we’re hoping at least two of those internships turn into full-time positions).

Needless to say we’ve grown very quickly and we are excited to welcome new, great talent to our team.

Here’s a brief look at some of our new hires who have started already or plan to start soon:

In Indiana, we’ve brought on Hayleigh Colombo as a reporter and Shaina Cavazos as an intern.

In New York, we’ve brought on Mary Ellen McIntire and Jackie Schechter as interns and Jessica Glazer as a contract reporter.

In Tennessee, we’ve brought on Grace Tatter as our legislative reporter based in Nashville and Oliver Morrison as an intern based in Memphis.

In Colorado, we’ve brought on Monique Collins as an intern.

Finally, on our network team, we’ve hired Rebecca Ross as our chief operating officer. Rebecca has more than fifteen years of experience designing innovative programs and products that create social impact and building the capacity of organizations that execute them. She has been a Vice President at ideas42 and Seedco where her work focused on issues of poverty, education and financial services for the poor in New York City and nationally. Rebecca has a BA from Vassar College and a MPA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government.

Introducing MORI– Our impact tracker tool

In February, we launched a tool called MORI– which stands for Measures of Our Reporting’s Influence. MORI is a WordPress plug in that was born of Chalkbeat’s fundamental belief that journalists can make a difference.

We’ve been using MORI for a couple months now with our reporters, and now we’re excited about the potential to share it with other newsrooms.

Today we set up this page, which includes a short MORI demo video and a link to a white paper we wrote at the request of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (who also commissioned a memorable paper on impact by Richard Tofel of ProPublica last year).

If there is enough interest from other newsrooms to use MORI, our hope is that we can get more funding and resources to improve the technology and share it with other organizations.

So check out our white paper, the MORI demo below and e-mail us at [email protected] if you’re interested in learning more!

Introducing Sarah Glen, our new engagement associate

sglenWe’re excited to welcome Sarah Glen as our new engagement associate for Chalkbeat. Sarah previously worked at Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome as a features producer.

She studied journalism and political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she also worked at The Daily Tar Heel, started a mobile-optimized news site with Reese News Lab and blogged about the 2012 election for The Washington Post. (Fun fact: When I was a senior and Sarah was a freshman, I was one of Sarah’s editors at our college newspaper. So cool to be able to work with her again.)

One of Sarah’s first projects is to improve our analysis of our current analytics data, i.e. trying to understand how well we’re serving our audience and how we can do it better. She’ll also be exploring how we can improve our readers’ website experience– so if you have any insights, shoot them her way!

Sarah also had the great idea of turning our “Chalkbeat in the news” section into “Inside Chalkbeat,” which will include updates about what’s going on behind the scenes at our organization. So keep checking back here for more news about what we’re up to.