Government & Politics

Roy Blunt standing by donor DeVos to head education

Protesters gathered outside Sen. Roy Blunt’s Kansas City office earlier this week in opposition to Betsy DeVos heading the U.S. Department of Education. Blunt is supporting her appointment.
Protesters gathered outside Sen. Roy Blunt’s Kansas City office earlier this week in opposition to Betsy DeVos heading the U.S. Department of Education. Blunt is supporting her appointment. jsleezer@kcstar.com

As Donald Trump’s nomination of a school choice advocate to head the federal Education Department looked increasingly precarious, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt stands among the Republicans backing Betsy DeVos for the post.

Blunt, a recipient of campaign funds from the nominee, said in a press release this week that “DeVos understands that decisions about education need to be made much closer to where kids are.”

DeVos has come under fire after she displayed a sometimes slippery grasp on U.S. education policy and a report that she appeared to plagiarize answers on a questionnaire put to her by the Senate. In addition, Democrats have also criticized her views on LGBT rights, on serving disabled students and over potential conflicts of interest between the Education Department’s responsibilities and her business holdings.

The billionaire nominee didn’t attend public schools or send her children to them. Rather, she’s been an outspoken advocate for charter schools and public school vouchers. The issues traditionally put Republicans at odds Democrats, who typically align with teachers unions against programs that shift students and funding away from traditional public schools.

Those factors have combined to rally Democrats in the Senate, and a few key Republicans, to say they’d oppose DeVos’ appointment.

Yet Blunt, who won narrow re-election in November over then-Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, has made clear he’ll stand by the president’s choice for the job.

“I look forward to working with her to find ways to get those decisions back to local school boards, and moms and dads,” he said in a statement released by his office Wednesday. “As Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee for the Department of Education, I will be working hard to ensure that public education continues to be appreciated as the cornerstone of opportunity in America.”

DeVos and her family have been reliable donors to conservative and Republican causes. The Center for Responsive Politics calculated that the DeVos family gave $2.7 million to Republican candidates in the 2016 election cycle.

The DeVos family donated $35,800 to Blunt’s campaign committee from 2010 through 2016, including $16,600 from Betsy Devos and her husband, Dick.

Anitra Arms, the president of the Missouri American Federation of Teachers, characterized Blunt’s backing of DeVos as Republican partisanship.

“Did we expect anything different? No,” said Arms. The AFT is the second-largest teachers union in the state, with about 6,000 members. “They’re of the same political affiliation. To choose someone with absolutely no experience with public education shows a disregard for schoolchildren of Missouri.”

A Blunt spokesman said the senator’s office declined to respond to the AFT criticism of his support for DeVos or whether there was any influence implied by her family’s financial support for his campaigns.

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, a regular recipient of campaign dollars from teachers union, has said she’ll vote against DeVos’ appointment. Her office said she’s received more than 25,000 calls opposing DeVos and “only a handful in support.”

In an email from her office, McCaskill said DeVos’ policy positions focus “on one goal when it comes to education—robbing public schools of resources in order to boost private schools. Especially in small towns and rural communities … that’s going to mean real harm to our kids’ education.”

The Star’s Lindsay Wise contributed to this story.

Scott Canon: 816-234-4754, @ScottCanon

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