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Claim: “John James supported Betsy DeVos’ agenda to cut public school funding and put it into wealthy private schools instead.”

A Facebook ad from the Senate Majority PAC — which helps elect Democratic candidates to the Senate — attacks Michigan Republican Senate candidate John James, claiming that he “backed Betsy DeVos’ agenda to take money away from public schools and give it to wealthy private schools instead.”

DeVos has long been a proponent in Michigan of reducing federal involvement in education and promoting school choice. And as education secretary in the Trump administration, she has championed lower Education Department budgets and proposed increasing federal funding to support private school enrollment. Members of the DeVos family have contributed $800,000 to a Super PAC trying to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Gary Peters.

James, a Detroit-area businessman, has noted his support for DeVos and for school choice. But he hasn’t outlined a particular approach.

Those who advocate for helping parents access alternatives to traditional public schools offer an array of proposals, from supporting charter schools, to government-funded vouchers to cover private school tuition costs, to tax credits that fund scholarships to help students attend private schools.

While the ad suggests James backs the DeVos agenda, James has not specifically said whether he approves of her efforts to significantly cut funding for public education and increase federal support for private schools. He has not held elective office, or taken any public votes that would clarify his position. His campaign speeches and website lay out few specific policy positions, a fact that his critics have pointed out. And his campaign declined PolitiFact Michigan’s request for any details about his education policies that would rebut the PAC’s claim.

That said, the Senate Majority PAC did not provide clear evidence to back its claim that James supported DeVos’s “agenda to cut public school funding and put it into wealthy private schools instead.”

Senate candidate John James speaks during a President Donald Trump rally at the MBS International Airport in Freeland, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. (Photo: Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press)

The PAC said it’s reasonable to conclude that based on his comments, James is fully behind DeVos’ policies. “James is very on the record about supporting her, and she’s very on the record about her positions,” Matt Corridoni from Senate Majority PAC wrote in an email to PolitiFact Michigan.

“Not being in office doesn’t excuse him from not taking a specific position on the policy itself — he’s a candidate who has embraced a platform,” Corridoni added.

During his unsuccessful 2018 campaign to unseat Michigan’s Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, James highlighted the need for education reform to address underperforming schools in Michigan.

Education is listed among the policy priorities featured on James’ current campaign website, on which he calls for supporting “all education options—public charter, and private.” While James supports school choice, he has not made clear whether his vision for education reform includes cutting funding for public schools and providing increased federal support for private schools.

More: In one of the nastier races, John James and Sen. Gary Peters offer different styles

More: Fact-checking the US Senate race between Gary Peters and John James

DeVos’ record on directing funding to private schools 

Analyses by the nonpartisan Committee for Education Funding find that during DeVos’ tenure as education secretary, she has consistently proposed slashing funding for public education and deploying federal dollars to expand school choice, including increasing federal support for private schools. Private schools do not receive federal funding directly. Instead the Education Department provides funding for school districts that fund services to students at private schools.

The Trump administration’s budget requests have proposed reducing the Education Department’s spending, but increasing federal support for private schools through appropriations, a tax credit to fund scholarships to attend private schools and voucher programs that could be used for private schools.

During a 2018 House Appropriations subcommittee hearing, DeVos defended the cuts proposed that year. “President Trump is committed to reducing the federal footprint in education, and that is reflected in this budget,” she said.

But the administration’s proposals have faced stiff pushback from Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Congress has consistently rejected cuts to the Education Department budget and none of the Trump administration’s requests for  more federal support for private schools have been enacted. Trump has signed the spending bills into law anyway.

This past spring, DeVos directed school districts to share federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act with private schools. Analysis from the nonpartisan Learning Policy Institute found that the school districts would direct an additional $1.3 billion to private schools under the department’s guidance. A federal judge ruled Sept. 4 that the department did not have the authority to do this, and the rule is no longer in effect. 

James’ statements of support for DeVos

“She’s headed in the right direction,” James said, referring to DeVos, according to audio from a May 2018 campaign fundraiser shared with PolitiFact Michigan by Senate Majority PAC.

“She’s got a lot of inertia, I think. By doing things to get more power back to the states and to parents, I truly believe that if we give parents the resources and the opportunity to decide what’s best for their children, they will make the best decision 100% of the time,” James said.

A few months later, James reiterated his support for DeVos and alternatives to traditional public schools. “I think that the job Betsy DeVos is doing in the Department of Education I think is very, very good,” according to audio from a fundraiser shared by the Democratic PAC. James also said, “I totally support charter schools,” according to a transcript of the recording provided by the Senate Majority PAC.

James’ 2018 comments followed DeVos’ effort to cut funding for the Education Department that year and increase federal support for private schools, including a proposal for a $1 billion grant to fund school choice initiatives, in part through scholarships to private schools. And in 2017, the Trump administration proposed spending $250 million to provide families with vouchers to use at private schools.

While James has noted his support for DeVos and school choice, the Democratic PAC did not provide evidence that James specifically supports cutting funding for public schools and diverting that money to help parents send their children to private schools instead.

Our ruling 

The Senate Majority PAC claims in a Facebook ad that James “supported Betsy DeVos’ agenda to cut public school funding and put it into wealthy private schools instead.”

During her tenure as education secretary, DeVos has sought funding cuts to public schools while increasing federal funding to help more children enroll in private schools.

James has made comments supportive of DeVos’ school choice efforts broadly, but his campaign declined to offer details on his education policy proposals, and he has no legislative voting record to indicate where he stands.

It may seem like James is benefiting from the lack of information he and his campaign have provided on his education platform. Nonetheless, the PAC did not provide conclusive evidence for its claim that he favors directing federal funding away from public schools to supporting private schools.

The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate this claim Mostly False. 

This fact check is available at IFCN’s 2020 US Elections FactChat #Chatbot on WhatsApp. Click here for more.Clara Hendrickson fact-checks Michigan issues and politics as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Contact Clara at [email protected] or 313-296-5743 for comments or to suggest a fact-check. 

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