In one of his strongest public shows of support for Donald Trump, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner joined 19 other Republican governors to support the president-elect’s controversial nominee for secretary of education.
Billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos is an “inspired choice,” Republican governors from 18 states and two U.S. territories wrote, saying she “will fight to streamline the federal education bureaucracy” and also is a “passionate supporter . . . of harnessing the power of competition to drive improvement in all K-12 schools, whether they be public, private or virtual.”
“President-elect Trump has made an inspired choice to reform federal education policy and allow state and local policymakers to craft innovative solutions to ensure our children are receiving the skills and knowledge to be successful in the world and modern workforce,” continued the Jan. 9 letter to the Senate committee tasked with approving her nomination.
That hearing, set for Wednesday, was postponed by the committee until Jan. 17 “at the request of Senate leadership” to accommodate scheduling. Senators said they wanted more time to examine DeVos’ financial filings, given her vast wealth and history of political donations.
DeVos isn’t a teacher or a public school graduate. Instead, she has supported educational causes, primarily alternatives to traditional public schools, with tens of millions from the fortune she shares with her husband Richard DeVos, son of the founder of Amway. She has championed vouchers, backing a failed ballot proposal in Michigan to amend the state’s constitution so students could pay private and religious school tuition with public money.
Rauner is also a charter school champion — a Chicago high school is named for him — who knows DeVos. “I have great respect for her,” he told reporters in December. “I think she’s a very talented and very passionate education advocate. And I personally am a believer in school choice. And I look forward to working together.”
Rauner has, for the most part, shied away from the president-elect, whom for months he wouldn’t even name. Illinois’ governor skipped the Republican convention that confirmed Trump’s nomination to the presidential ticket and declined to to attend next week’s inauguration.
However, he says he did call Trump days after the general election, and after explaining who he was, offered congratulations.
“I wanted to reach out,” Rauner said in November. “If we have a hostile relationship, it’s not going to help the people of Illinois.”
The parent group Raise Your Hand, which has urged parents to flood senators’ phone lines in opposition to Trump’s education choice, tweeted on Tuesday, “Not surprising that Rauner supports DeVos. They both want to remove the public from public ed.
Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, who already has denounced DeVos as a “nightmare” for public education, likened her to the wealthy Rauner, saying “All these millionaires and billionaires have they all have the same mindset that the way to have good public education is to wipe out any kind of creativity or critical thought because what they require is a compliant workforce that won’t complain about poor working condition or low wages.”
But Lewis predicted that DeVos’ dedication to vouchers — sometimes floated in Illinois as “opportunity scholarships” — could turn off many supporters of charter schools, which certainly would lose students to private schools.
“I think she’s going to get a whole lot of pushback even from her side of the spectrum,” Lewis said.
Among those already watching closely is Peter Cunningham, a former deputy secretary of the department DeVos wants to lead, and head of the pro-reform website, Education Post.
“There’s a lot of concern about whether she understands the historic side of her role in protecting kids against discrimination,” he said. “Your job is to protect kids who often don’t get protected by state and local governments.”
As for vouchers, he continued, they’re about “taking dollars and putting them into the private school system and I don’t have any idea how to hold those schools accountable,” he said. “Do they test? Are they required to take all kids?”
Contributing: Tina Sfondeles