Betsy DeVos Is Known For Promoting Vouchers, But Her Take On Charter Schools Also Raises Religious-Liberty Concerns

President-elect Donald Trump has picked Betsy DeVos to head the U.S. Education Department. DeVos is infamous for leading the crusade to create private school vouchers, but she’s also known for her Wild West approach to charter schools – and that should worry religious-liberty watchdogs. 

DeVos is a founder of the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), a Michigan non-profit group that advocates for increased reliance on, and deregulation of, charter schools. A billionaire who has devoted much of her adult life – and a substantial part of her wealth – to promoting the so-called school-choice movement, DeVos has used her home state of Michigan to trial-run many of her policy preferences. And it hasn’t been going well.

Thanks in large part to DeVos, Michigan has incredibly unregulated charter schools.  

As is to be expected whenever there’s a lack of appropriate oversight, problems have resulted. In Detroit, where over half the students are enrolled in charter schools, 65 percent of charters perform worse in 8th-grade math than the public schools. And a federal review in 2015 “found that ‘an unreasonably high’ percentage of [Michigan’s] charter schools were on the list of the state’s lowest performing schools.”

Yet this past year, GLEP successfully opposed efforts by state legislators to begin to remedy this problem through the creation of a bipartisan oversight commission. In fact, DeVos’s substantial past campaign contributions – and the potential that she could withhold future contributions – influenced Republican legislators to refuse to create the commission.

DeVos’s deregulation approach to charter schools is wrong for America’s schoolchildren for other reasons as well. For example, without sufficient governmental oversight, charter schools may violate parents’ and students’ rights by proselytizing and imposing religious instruction on students and by assigning religious textbooks.

We at Americans United know from experience that this is already happening at charter schools across the country.

As taxpayer-funded, public institutions, charter schools may not promote religion.

In Arizona – another state that provides little oversight for its charter schools – a charter school called Heritage Academy teaches students that they are duty-bound to obey religious principles, including the Ten Commandments, and that such religious adherence is necessary to preserve political freedom in the United States. Despite numerous complaints about the school’s unconstitutional religious instruction, neither the state of Arizona nor the school’s leadership has acted to stop these violations.

This past fall, Americans United responded by filing suit against this charter school and the Arizona public officials who should have been regulating it. Our case is unique; there have been few previous attempts to hold a charter school accountable to the requirement that, as a public school, it must obey the Constitution by providing only secular instruction.

Based on her record in Michigan, DeVos will likely oversee a Department of Education that will promote the expansion of unregulated or under-regulated charter schools. That’s why Americans United is urging the Senate to ask her tough questions about her views.

If DeVos is confirmed, we expect even more schools like Heritage Academy to appear. When they do, Americans United will stand ready to advocate for the students and parents at these schools and to ensure that all charter schools respect our religious-liberty rights.

If you know about a charter school that is providing religious education or proselytizing students, contact Americans United at legal@au.org.