November 30, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
Washington, DC – Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, is not just one of the nation’s leading funders of efforts to privatize education and destroy labor unions. She also funds two organizations that have recently advocated ending laws against child labor.
On Nov. 3, Jeffrey Tucker of the Foundation for Economic Education posted an article called “Let the Kids Work,” in which he mocked a Washington Post spread of circa-1909 photographs of children at work as “our periodic reminder of the horrors and brutality of the age of capitalism.” Instead, he argued, those kids were “working in the adult world, surrounded by cool bustling things and new technology. They are on the streets, in the factories, in the mines, with adults and with peers, learning and doing. They are being valued for what they do, which is to say being valued as people. They are earning money. Whatever else you want to say about this, it’s an exciting life.”
Tucker, who is also an adjunct scholar at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan anti-union think tank, and a research fellow at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, also claimed that child labor had been eliminated by the market and that laws against it had “helped shore up the power of labor unions against cheaper wage competition.” He also said that compulsory-education laws were as bad as child labor, because they force kids “into government holding tanks for a full decade.”
Later that day, Acton Institute project coordinator Joseph Sunde praised Tucker’s ideas in a blog post entitled “Bring Back Child Labor: Work Is a Gift Our Kids Can Handle.” Sunde contended that restrictions on child labor were the result of “distorted attitudes.” The photos of 5-year-old newsboys, 10-year-old cotton-mill girls, and 14-year-old coal miners, he said, “represent the faces of those who are actively building enterprises and cities, using their gifts to serve their communities, and setting the foundation of a flourishing nation.”
He later deleted the “Bring Back Child Labor” headline and posted a disclaimer saying he did “NOT endorse replacing education with paid labor.” On the other hand, he praised Tucker for saying “let’s not pretend that danger is something that every young teen wants to avoid” and that if compulsory school attendance was abolished, kids would get “fantastic jobs” at Chick-Fil-A and Walmart that would instill a work ethic.
“What if we put power back in the hands of parents and kids, dismantling the range of excessive legal restrictions, minimum-wage fixings, and regulations that lead our children to work less and work later?” Sunde asked.
The Acton Institute, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Mackinac Center are all part of the network of far-right ideological groups funded by Betsy DeVos and her husband, Dick, the billionaire heir to the Amway fortune, from their base in Grand Rapids. She served as an Acton board member from 1995 to 2005, and the couple’s Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation has given the institute at least $1.28 million since 2000, including a six-figure donation in 2013.
Between 1998 and 2011, according to SourceWatch, DeVos family foundations gave more than $560,000 to the Midland-based Mackinac Center, a longtime advocate of prohibiting the union shop. One staffer told a state legislator in 2011 that the center’s goal was to “outlaw government collective bargaining in Michigan.” The DeVoses also spearheaded the campaign to ram a “right to work” law through the state legislature in December 2012, funding an ad campaign and calling legislators personally to twist their arms.
The couple’s connections to the Foundation for Economic Education, a free-market think tank founded in 1946, are more nebulous, but it is definitely tied to their network. Dick DeVos and his younger brother Dan both studied at Northwood University under FEE’s longtime director of economic education, V. Orval Watts. In December 2015, Acton and the Mackinac Center cosponsored a lecture by FEE president Lawrence Reed, who the institute described as “always a favorite speaker.”
Betsy DeVos also heads two of the main school-privatization organizations, the American Federation for Children and its affiliated Alliance for School Choice, as well as channeling money to support candidates who back privatization and oppose those who don’t. “She has consistently pushed a corporate agenda to privatize, de-professionalize and impose cookie-cutter solutions to public education,” National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia said in a statement Nov. 23.
The couple also funds organizations that deny the existence of global warming and oppose gay and lesbian rights.