In a tightly-controlled, three-hour Senate hearing Jan. 17, Republican committee members praised Betsy DeVos, the billionaire tapped to be the nation’s next education secretary, because she was an “outsider.” Meanwhile, Democrats peppered her with questions about her business conflicts, lack of experience and a lobbying and philanthropic career spent undermining public education.
Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Lamar Alexander, R.-Tenn., rushed the rare evening hearing through, limiting senators to one round of questioning, and holding it before the Office of Government Ethics could even finish examining her finances and business relationships.
Soon enough, one of potentially hundreds of ethics problems surfaced. Despite DeVos’ promise that she won’t be “conflicted,” DeVos and her husband Dick have invested in a company that refinances student loans. President Obama cut out private lenders from the student loan market but the bank lobbyists want to change that. So much for draining the swamp.
In a world before the Republicans controlled all three government branches, DeVos would be considered unqualified. But for the brave new world, she is immensely qualified to do exactly what the Trump administration seems most committed to: take public funds to enrich the private sector; decimate educational opportunities for children and working families, especially black and brown families, special needs and poor families of every shade; upend any traditional expectation of government and democracy.
Further, she is part of a hard-line wing of the Christian Right movement; she has said that she wants to “advance the kingdom of God” through education vouchers, and that her concept of school choice will lead to “greater Kingdom gain.”
Unfortunately for the country, rather than “draining the swamp”, DeVos and her new boss see the “swamp” as public education itself and the status quo as educators, in particular teachers’ unions. They have their sights set on dismantling both.
DeVos bobbed and weaved through the senators’ questions. When pressed by Sen. Al Franken, D.-Minn., DeVos denied that she believes in anti-gay “conversion therapy” (an approach which has been debunked and is now widely considered to be a form of abuse) despite the massive donations to a religious organization that supports it. She gave a weak answer to the issue of combating campus sexual assault. She dodged Sen. Bernie Sanders’ question on whether she would be considered for the post if her family had not donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the Republican Party. To Sen. Chris Murphy, whose home state of Connecticut saw the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting deaths of 20 young schoolchildren and six teachers and staff, she could not bring herself to say guns do not belong in schools.
Writing for FiveThirtyEight, reporters Erin Einhorn and Sarah Darville said Devos’ “biggest stumble of the day came when Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine asked whether schools that get federal funding should have to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires schools to address students’ special needs. She responded, ‘I think that’s a matter best left to the states.’ In a follow-up, when asked if she was aware that the IDEA was a federal law that she would need to enforce as education secretary, she admitted that she may have been confused and said federal laws must be followed.”
Public education and democracy
Most Americans believe that public education plays a key role in democratic society because, according to AASA, The School Superintendents Association,, “it develops better citizens” and “to improve social conditions; to promote cultural unity; to help people become economically self-sufficient; and to enhance individual happiness and enrich individual lives.”
Public education has been seen as essential to the U.S. Constitution’s mandate to “provide for the common defense and general welfare.” States, where the authority to implement public education systems falls, have constitutions that specifically mention the government’s responsibility to provide a quality public education. Public education has been a main arena in the battle for expanding democratic rights throughout the history of the United States. Racial equality – from slavery’s abolition to the Civil Rights movement – has been a mainstay in this battle. But so have class and gender, sexuality and ability, free speech and separation of church and state.
So what will it mean, if the U.S. Senate approves DeVos’ nomination, to drain public education of its “public” and democratic society of its “democratic” expectations and aspirations?
Writing in PoliticusUSA on the DeVos nomination, educator Tim Libretti pairs the attack on public education and democracy with wealth disparity.
“[T]his administration aims not only to undermine public education and the public sector at large, constituting a direct assault on democracy, but also to further a two-tiered society of haves and have-nots by making access to quality education increasingly inaccessible to the children of working-class and middle-class families.”
Democracy, race and economics were also linked by President Obama in his epic farewell address. He warned about the dangers to U.S. democracy, citing both income and racial inequality as threats, and calling “stark inequality … corrosive to our democratic ideal.”
“While the top one percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many families, in inner cities and in rural counties, have been left behind — the laid-off factory worker; the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills — convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interests of the powerful — that’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.”
Vouchers and charter schools: axis of “school choice” evil
During his campaign, Trump promised to follow through on one of the Republicans’ age-old attacks on public education: vouchers. He pledged to spend $20 billion in taxpayer money to fund a voucher program that students could use at charter and private schools, including religious schools.
DeVos is a devotee to vouchers and its close relative, charter schools. The billionaire made it her business to lobby for voucher programs, cheerily called “school choice,” and for unregulated charter schools in her home state of Michigan.
In “Betsy DeVos and the twilight of public education,” Stephen Henderson, the Detroit Free Press editorial page editor, wrote about the abysmal state of Michigan schools, thanks in large part to the efforts of DeVos.
“This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape — where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and ‘choice’ means the opposite for tens of thousands of children — is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.
“And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos, the west Michigan advocate whose family has contributed millions of dollars to the cause of school choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout Michigan.”
Democrats have made charter schools part of their education reform effort. But lately, key Democratic constituents have been pushing back on charters, including teachers unions and civil rights organizations.
Yet Republicans use charter schools and vouchers almost inter-changeably to undermine “government-run” schools. DeVos and her husband Dick combine the free-market zealotry on school reform with their evangelical Christian beliefs, placing the school reform battle for “making a more Christian, God-centered society.” In a 2001 interview obtained by Politico, DeVos said that instead of building a network of Christian schools, vouchers lead to “Greater Kingdom gain.”
“School choice” and segregation
But, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren pointed out, the “racially-charged history” of vouchers paves the road to hell and not to the promised land.
“After Brown v. Board of Education and the court-ordered desegregation of public schools, many Southern states established voucher schemes to allow white students to leave the education system and take taxpayer dollars with them, decimating the budgets of the public school districts,” she wrote in a letter to Trump.
“Today’s voucher schemes can be just as harmful to public school district budgets, because they often leave school districts with less funding to teach the most disadvantaged students, while funneling private dollars to unaccountable private schools that are not held to the same academic or civil rights standards as public schools.”
In addition to the violations of civil rights that vouchers engender, according to the analysis of two political science professors from the University of Richmond, vouchers fail on all fronts.
“Overall, peer-reviewed research in the United States has found that vouchers have had little, if any, effect on student academic performance or education quality in public schools competing with private voucher schools,” the professors wrote in the Washington Post.
Teachers urge “no” vote
Teachers unions have been working nonstop to warn the American people about the dangers a DeVos nomination poses.
National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García said, “The job of the secretary of education is to support our students, especially the most vulnerable, to strengthen America’s public education system and to ensure equal access. The Trump-DeVos agenda is designed to undermine that mission and harm our students and public schools.” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said, “Americans want the secretary of education to strengthen and support the public schools that 90 percent of American children attend.” In a speech at the National Press Club, Weingarten outlined four pillars—“promoting children’s well-being, supporting powerful learning, building teacher capacity and fostering cultures of collaboration” — that she said will do just that.
They are calling on the public to contact their senators to oppose DeVos’ nomination. It is a long shot but there may be a chance that a couple Republicans could be convinced that she poses a threat to their values. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski had questions about the impact of vouchers on her state’s rural schools. The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a coalition of labor, parent, student and community groups, announced a national day of action on Jan. 19 to stand up for public schools and oppose the DeVos nomination.