Political News

What Betsy DeVos' schedule tells us about her agenda

Posted October 27, 2017 11:25 a.m. EDT

— Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been a lightning rod since taking office in February. But little has been known about her behind-the-scenes work to reform the way American education is delivered.

Newly released schedules obtained by the government transparency group American Oversight through a Freedom of Information Act request publicly reveal who DeVos met with and consulted in her first six months on the job.

Her office typically releases a listing of public events, but the schedules -- from February 8 through July 19 -- delve much deeper, showing phone calls and meetings with individuals from Silicon Valley, politics and the business world.

Here's what her schedule shows:

School Visits

DeVos's passion for school choice was mirrored in her selections for school visits during first months on the job.

She visited 23 schools during her first four-and-a-half months as education secretary. Among schools for children in grades K-12, she made appearances at five charter schools, four religious schools and eight public schools.

Education Week's reporting on DeVos's current school visits indicates that the secretary has visited 33 schools since being sworn in, including 16 traditional public schools, seven charter schools and nine private schools.

DeVos chaired the pro-charter schools group American Federation for Children and served on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which promoted school choice and Common Core.

In addition to her school visits, DeVos's first months on the job included several meetings with charter school advocates, local and state education groups and religious organizations, according to the schedules.

Meetings with conservatives, business groups, and financiers

DeVos, the former chair of an investment firm whose husband, Dick DeVos, is the CEO of Amway, met with several business groups interested in learning about her new role.

DeVos attended meetings with the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, the South Carolina African American Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

She also met with former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. In his new role with the investment bank Moelis & Co., Cantor and other bankers met with DeVos to talk about the Department of Education's existing portfolio on student loans. A note on the meeting said the investment group was there "to discuss a private/public partnership approach to fund student loans in the future."

In addition to investment bankers in Washington, she also visited some big names in Silicon Valley, including Emerson Collective, Google, and Thiel Capital.

Not surprisingly, many visitors to DeVos' office have been figures in the education reform movement or stakeholders in her school choice efforts. Some have represented charter schools, such as the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, or religious groups, like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the American Association of Christian Schools, whose members could see enrollment grow if more states adopt voucher programs.

Meetings with celebrities

In addition to meeting with Emerson Collective's Laurene Powell Jobs and having breakfast with Peter Thiel at his home, DeVos met with some notable entertainers.

In April, DeVos joined musician Pitbull at his charter school in Miami.

She also spent a half hour in her office with Caitlyn Jenner, although the topics discussed in their meeting were not disclosed. Jenner, who says she may run for office, wouldn't go into detail about the meeting, but speaking about the Trump administration's work on LGBTQ issues, told the Daily Beast "(DeVos is) actually on our side. She's extraordinarily good." Jenner has also voiced dissent over President Donald Trump's decision to rescind Obama-era protections which allowed transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice at their schools.

And "Hillbilly Elegy" author J.D. Vance got a "lunch and learn" call from DeVos in July.

Messaging advice

DeVos's schedule also reveals she has been consulting with messaging experts.

Conservative messaging guru and pollster Frank Luntz brought DeVos ideas for communicating her policy priorities.

"Frank has a 60 slide deck of the words to use and the words to lose regarding parental choice, vouchers, charter schools, teacher pay, and all other issues in education reform," reads a note on the June 21 calendar entry.

In her second week on the job, DeVos met with Diana Banister, whose firm has worked with conservative clients such as Citizens United, Tea Party Patriots and the Susan B. Anthony List.

DeVos also spoke by phone in February with Kayleigh McEnany, who is now a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee and was, at the time, a conservative commentator on CNN.

The next day, DeVos attended the Conservative Political Action Conference, where she gave a speech and fielded a series of softball questions onstage from McEnany.

DeVos and teachers' unions at war

There's no love lost between DeVos and the nation's largest teachers' unions.

Lily Eskelsen García of the National Education Association labeled DeVos the "the queen of for-profit privatization of public education."

Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers branded her "an existential threat to public education" and bashed school vouchers as "only slightly more polite cousins of segregation."

DeVos bludgeoned unions for defending the "status quo" and what she called an archaic "system that by every account is failing too many kids."

While both union presidents have lashed out at DeVos, the documents show very different approaches behind the scenes.

Eskelsen García has kept true to her pledge to not work with DeVos -- neither she nor representatives from NEA appear on DeVos' schedule.

Weingarten and DeVos, however, have had an ongoing dialogue. They've talked at least three times by phone -- in February, April and May -- and together visited a public school in Ohio. The first call came a week after DeVos was sworn in.

DeVos's office did not comment for this report.