There was a lot of horrified reaction from those who support public schools at the announcement that Michigan’s own Betsy DeVos was Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of education.
John Austin, the president of the Michigan Board of Education, said “it’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse and feeding it school children.” Austin, however, was narrowly defeated this year, and won’t be around to try and resist.
DeVos, the wife of the billionaire heir of the Amway fortune, has been dedicated for much of her adult life to promoting alternatives to public education, either through charter schools, or her preferred method, giving parents vouchers to buy a certain amount of education wherever they choose.
Her opponents note that she has generally opposed any attempt to regulate the proliferation of charters, or hold them to any standard. How successful she will be at imposing her agenda on the nation remains to be seen.
But there’s one chapter in her political history of which she probably wouldn’t want to be reminded.
Debbie Stabenow, Michigan’s senior senator, is a Democrat who has little in common politically with Betsy DeVos, except for this: DeVos is responsible for Stabenow getting to the U.S. Senate.
You heard that right, and here’s how that happened:
Back in 2000, DeVos was chair of the Michigan Republican Party, and wanted to put a constitutional amendment for a school voucher system on the statewide ballot. The politically savvy John Engler, who had been governor almost a decade, said no.
This was before charter schools had really taken off. There was more support for traditional public education then, and Proposal A was perceived to have fixed many of its problems.
Engler knew politically the time wasn’t right.
He told her it would lose, and would cause a flood of teachers and their allies to rush to the polls, and that wouldn’t be good for Republicans.
However, DeVos wouldn’t listen. She got her voucher proposal on the ballot – but since she was at odds with the governor, ended up resigning as state party chair.
Everything John Engler predicted came to pass.
The voucher proposal went down in a humiliating landslide, by more than two to one. Michigan had been seen as a neck-and-neck struggle in the presidential race that year, but the voters who came out to help beat the voucher system gave Al Gore an easy victory over George W. Bush in that epic contested election.
Incumbent freshman Republican U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham was supposed to be reelected that November.
Two weeks before the election, he was ahead of his opponent, a congresswoman from Lansing, by 12 points.
But Stabenow poured it on at the end of the campaign, and the folks who came out to kill the vouchers made the difference. She won an upset narrow victory over Abraham, who had his career ended after a single term.
Stabenow has been reelected twice since, and the Republicans have never won another U.S. Senate race in the state.
The nation isn’t the same today as it was years ago, and DeVos may have become more politically sophisticated.
But it will be interesting to see how much she allows ideology to trump common sense in the months and years ahead.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.