Community Activists Optimistic Over Trump Choice for Education Secretary

NEW YORK - Advocates for the Orthodox community welcomed the nomination of prominent school choice advocate Betsy DeVos to be the nation’s next Secretary of Education. Aside from her strong support of an issue close to the hearts of tuition-paying parents, askanim felt confident that her record of partnering with Jewish organizations would ensure a uniquely “sympathetic ear” to issues facing the community.

Mrs. DeVos is the chair of the American Federation for Children (AFC), a Washington-based organization that focuses singly on advancing the cause of school choice options, including vouchers, scholarship funds, and tax credit programs. Rabbi A.D. Motzen, national director for state affairs for Agudath Israel of America, has worked closely with her and the AFC on many lobbying efforts and called Mrs. DeVos’s nomination “exciting.”

“She is not new to the Orthodox community and certainly not to school choice,” he said. “She very much appreciates and recognizes the work that Rabbi [Moshe] Sherer, z”l, and the Agudah have been doing on it since the 1960s; she really feels that we paved the ground.”

Rabbi Motzen said that in his many interactions with Mrs. DeVos, she showed a “sincere respect” for the Orthodox community, down to small details. At a recent AFC dinner, glatt kosher steak dinners were specially ordered for Rabbi Motzen, chairman of Agudah’s board of trustees Shlomo Werdiger and other members of their group.

“We’ve spoken in the past about Jewish day schools, she has respect not only for the advocacy that we’ve done, but the products that our yeshivos produce and the community members they become. I think she will have a very sympathetic ear to the issues that face our community, including guarding against government intrusion into yeshivah curriculums,” he said.

Mrs. DeVos’s partnering with the Orthodox community dates back to the beginning of her advocacy career, when she worked with Detroit askan Rabbi Bunny Freidman on an attempt, albeit a failed one, to bring vouchers to her home state of Michigan. Most recently, Orthodox advocates worked closely with AFC in establishing Florida’s groundbreaking tax credit program, which stands to bring $11 million to Jewish day schools.

Maury Litwack, the Orthodox Union (OU) advocacy director of state political affairs, said that AFC’s work in Florida put “boots on the ground” to contend with the attempts of several organizations to fight the program with lawsuits. He called her nomination “refreshing.”

“She looks at education not through the lens of trying to prop up an existing system that has failed, but as a responsibility to service the needs of every child, be that in a public, charter, sectarian or religious private school,” he told Hamodia. “Every yeshivah parent would like more funding, but not at the expense of government intrusion. I think she understands how to deliver without meddling.”

While school choice initiatives are largely a state issue, the OU’s director of national advocacy, Nathan Diament, told Hamodia that, as secretary, Mrs. DeVos could accomplish a great deal on the issue from her federal position.

“The position is a real bully pulpit to advocate for issues. And Donald Trump in his campaign talked about directing $20 billion federal dollars to states for school choice programs. That would require legislation, but if the Secretary of Education could spearhead that, it could be a revolution,” he said.

Each of the askanim added that the position of the Secretary of Education wields a great deal of power in ensuring that money given to the states is apportioned to private schools with the level of equity for which they are intended.

“People should be excited,” said Mr. Litwak. “But the yeshivah community has to continue to make its voices heard. Charter schools and all sorts of groups will be knocking at her doorstep. They have to hear from us constantly, too.”