An American citizen stands to profit as his security company expands operations into a Chinese province described as a modern-day police state by human rights activists, and where the Chinese government is detaining up to a million Muslims in “re-education” camps.
Erik Prince, a former U.S. Navy SEAL officer and brother of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, is the deputy chairman and minority shareholder of Frontier Services Group (FSG), a Hong Kong-listed security, logistics and insurance company he co-founded in 2014. Prior to FSG, Prince founded Blackwater, a private military contractor that was mired in controversy for its actions in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — specifically when its employees were convicted of killing unarmed civilians.
(MORE: China is using app to collect personal information on its citizens, report says)
FSG plans to spend approximately $15.4 (HK$120.8) million in Pakistan and Xinjiang, China by May 2020, according to a recent financial disclosure. The Trump administration announced sanctions this week against multiple Chinese entities tied to Xinjiang, citing the alleged human rights violations taking place in the region.
“Yes, absolutely,” DeVos replied when asked if she was trying to “utilize” the crisis to help “faith-based schools”
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos admitted that she was trying to use the ongoing coronavirus crisis to push through her private school choice agenda during a Tuesday radio interview.
DeVos made the comments during an interview with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, on his Sirius XM show. The interview was first flagged by the nonprofit education news outlet Chalkbeat.
Dolan asked the secretary whether she was trying to “utilize this particular crisis to ensure that justice is finally done to our kids and the parents who choose to send them to faith-based schools.”
“Am I correct in understanding what your agenda is?” he asked.
“Yes, absolutely,” DeVos replied. “For more than three decades, that has been something that I’ve been passionate about. This whole pandemic has brought into clear focus that everyone has been impacted, and we shouldn’t be thinking about students that are in public schools versus private schools.”
Department of Education spokeswoman Angela Morabito said in a statement to Chalkbeat that DeVos “is helping Catholic schools just as she is helping all schools; this does not mean she is favoring any one type of school over another.”
“There is no question that this crisis has impacted all students — no matter what kind of school they’re enrolled in,” she added.
DeVos’ comments came as she defended her decision to redirect coronavirus relief funds away from public schools with high numbers of impoverished students to private schools which tend to serve wealthy students. Congress allocated about $13.5 billion to help schools, most of which was intended to go to schools based on a formula that determines how many poor children they serve.
The formula has long allocated some of the funding for poor children who attend private schools, The Washington Post reported. But DeVos said states should calculate how many total students private schools serve rather than just the number of poor students. As a result, millions in aid will be redirected away from schools with high poverty rates to private schools which may not have many poor students.
The move drew criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“My sense was that the money should have been distributed in the same way we distribute Title I money,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate Education Committee who is typically a DeVos ally, told reporters Wednesday. “I think that’s what most of Congress was expecting.”
Democrats also decried the decision.
“[The guidance] seeks to repurpose hundreds-of-millions of taxpayer dollars intended for public school students to provide services for private school students, in contravention of both the plain reading of the statute and the intent of Congress,” House Education Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., House Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLaura, D-Ct., and Senate Education ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a letter to DeVos on Tuesday.
“Given that the guidance contradicts the clear requirements of the CARES Act, it will cause confusion among states and local education agencies that will be uncertain of how to comply with both the department’s guidance and the plain language of the CARES Act,” the lawmakers urged, asking her to “immediately revise” the guidance.
But DeVos defended the decision Thursday to reporters.
“It’s our interpretation that [the funding] is meant literally for all students, and that includes students no matter where they’re learning,” she said.
The Democrats’ warning has proven right, however, as states are already dealing with confusion sparked by the policy.
The Education Law Center said DeVos’ policy was a “patent misreading” of the federal law and could redirect $800,000 in aid from Newark Public Schools in New Jersey to private school students. Tennessee’s education chief said she plans to follow DeVos’ guidance, but other school leaders argue that it is not legally binding and should be ignored.
Indiana’s schools chief Jennifer McCormick said that the state would ignore the guidance after consulting with the state’s attorney general.
“I will not play political agenda games with relief funds,” she said.
Scott told NPR that “there is rightfully pushback” on the decision.
“The actions of the Department of Education have left states and districts stuck between compliance with the law,” he said, “and adhering to ideologically motivated guidance.”
Many of the tales of controversy to emerge from the Trump administration have been abstract, or complicated, or murky. Whenever anyone warns about destruction of “norms,” the conversation quickly becomes speculative—the harms are theoretical, vague, and in the future.
This makes new Washington Post reporting about President Donald Trump’s border wall especially valuable. The Post writes about how Trump has repeatedly pressured the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security to award a contract for building a wall at the southern U.S. border to a North Dakota company headed by a leading Republican donor.
The story demonstrates the shortcomings of Trump’s attempt to bring private-sector techniques into government. It shows his tendency toward cronyism, his failures as a negotiator, and the ease with which a fairly primitive attention campaign can sway him. At heart, though, what it really exemplifies is Trump’s insistence on placing performative gestures over actual efficacy. And it is a concrete example—almost literally—of how the president’s violations of norms weaken the country and waste taxpayer money.
The Post reports:
In phone calls, White House meetings and conversations aboard Air Force One during the past several months, Trump has aggressively pushed Dickinson, N.D.-based Fisher Industries to Department of Homeland Security leaders and Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the commanding general of the Army Corps, according to the administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal discussions.
It may be a not-very-subtle sign of the frustration in the Army that the news leaked to the Post the same day that Semonite was called to the White House and Trump once again pressed him.*
Yet the president shows no signs of asking her to resign, reflecting in part his lack of interest in the issue of education and the department responsible for it. And DeVos has no interest in departing. Advisers say she is excited by the tasks ahead. After two years of mostly undoing the work of her predecessors, she has shifted to advancing her own agenda.
Topping her list is a proposal for a $5-billion-a-year tax credit that would reimburse taxpayers and corporations dollar for dollar for donations to scholarship programs. DeVos, 61, came to Washington after a lifetime of advocating for school vouchers and other programs that allow families to channel tax dollars away from traditional public schools. Passage of such a plan would represent a crowning achievement — though it is unlikely, given widespread Democratic opposition.
DeVos persuaded the Treasury Department to support the idea, even though the credit would complicate the tax code just two years after a bill passed to simplify it. She worked behind the scenes to negotiate details and unite most school choice proponents behind the plan. Now, she is traveling the country to promote the idea, with trips so far to three states and more planned.
At the White House, aides do not expect the measure to become law, and Trump hardly mentions it. But White House officials say DeVos gets credit for pushing the school choice agenda, which is popular with Trump’s core of conservative supporters.
And DeVos, who is deeply religious, scores points for the president with evangelical Christians, an important part of his base that has stuck by Trump even as unseemly details of his personal life have spilled out.
“He has staffed his administration and surrounded himself with people who have deep roots and street cred in the faith community. Betsy would be at or near the top of that list,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and a longtime evangelical leader.
DeVos does not shy from talking about her faith. At an event in January hosted by the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, she spoke of her Christian education and said her faith helps her deal with public criticism.
“There’s an audience I play to, and it’s just an audience of one,” she said. “That’s a true north star.”
.. DeVos has benefited from Trump’s lack of interest in education, officials say. And the president — despite his “Apprentice” reputation for dispatching with poor-performing employees — is actually loath to fire subordinates. In many cases, he’s let them dangle for months before cutting the rope or makes their lives so miserable they quit.
.. Also bolstering DeVos’s standing: She hasn’t had a single personal scandal. She’s a billionaire and travels by private plane, but she pays for it herself. She donates her salary to charity. Even detractors say that in person, DeVos is pleasant and easy to be around. And she has shown personal grit, appearing in public in a wheelchair after she broke her pelvis in a cycling accident.
In contrast, White House officials describe Trump as more hot and cold regarding DeVos and said he rarely sees her. He has been frustrated with her public mistakes, beginning with her disastrous confirmation hearing, they said, and expects perfection from his lieutenants.
But Trump appreciates that she’s tough, handles criticism and is a loyal soldier willing to defend even unpopular policies, officials said. For instance, she spent three days last month defending the administration’s plan to eliminate nearly $18 million in federal funding for a Special Olympics program in schools. She had fought to maintain the spending and was overruled by the White House budget office but still argued for the cut before hostile lawmakers at two congressional hearings.
Then, after the three-day mini-drama, Trump swooped in and announced he was overruling “my people” and favored the funding. It prompted a rare, albeit gentle, DeVos pushback.
“I am pleased and grateful the president and I see eye-to-eye on this issue, and that he has decided to fund our Special Olympics grant,” she said. “This is funding I have fought for behind the scenes over the last several years.”
Before that, she had kept quiet about the internal dispute. Early in the administration, she attended a dinner for the Special Olympics, dining with athletes and then speaking about her support for the program. Two weeks later, Timothy Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, was shocked to see the president’s first budget plan, which proposed cutting all federal support for the group.
He called DeVos to ask about it. At first, she defended the cut but then backed down, implying it was never her idea. Six months later, she donated a quarter of her salary to the nonprofit. Congress ignored the president’s request and increased the funding.
.. DeVos kept quiet on other disagreements with the White House, too. She was against revoking documents meant to help schools work with transgender students but never publicly protested. She didn’t think that a school safety commission, formed after the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., should consider the question of racial disparities in student discipline. Again, she said nothing.
Aides describe her as a loyal soldier, an approach that has helped keep her position with Trump secure. But DeVos has done little to win over critics who opposed her from the start. Detractors say she lacks basic knowledge about education, caring only about her pet issue of school choice. They charge that she wants to destroy, not bolster, public education. And they argue that someone who has never attended a public school has no business being education secretary.
“She is undeterred in her mission despite the forces against her,” department spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill said. “People see she is in it for the right reasons.”
Aides said DeVos has met with Democrats who might support her tax credit plan but declined to name them. She has never reached out to Charlie Barone, lobbyist for Democrats for Education Reform, a group that favors some of the same policies — such as more charter schools — and who might have been at least an occasional ally.