Processing, Analyzing and Responding to what the new Education Secretary Represents
Remember this day. On Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Education Secretary of the United States of America, by the slimmest of margins and the bitterest of battles, which finally had to be settled by a historic tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence.
Because Republican Senators let money come before people, they took a hammer and drove a nail firmly into the coffin of American education. There are those who will say this may be a battle loss, but a strategic win for progressives — the need to have the Vice President cast the deciding vote will mean it’s tricky to push big reforms when you had absolutely no majority consensus on your methods or qualifications to do so — and that may be so, but everything we’ve witnessed up until now indicates a contrary point. Senate offices were pounded by phone calls this week by constituents absolutely freaking out over the voucher advocate’s potential to become Education Secretary. Two Republican Senators jumped ship. Others spoke out against her policy ideals — like Jerry Moran of Kansas — but did absolutely nothing to stop her.
Even without a majority support, once you’re in power, you can do a surprising amount of damage, even in the short term. Bureaucracy is there to make it harder, to pull back on the brakes like a terrified Student Driving Instructor watching his student pump the gas, but this whole administration has shown a remarkable disregard for following anything like traditional bureaucracy.
But let’s pull back and look at that bureaucracy a moment, shall we?
What IS the Secretary of Education?
The Department of Education has one stated goal: to endure education in the United States is of a good quality and fairly accessible by everyone. To that end, according to learn.org, the department tends to focus on “creating policies about financial aid and distributing financial aid, collecting data on education in the U.S., bringing attention to key education issues and preventing discrimination.”
The Secretary of Education is in charge of those efforts. She sets their course and relays them to the president. She will oversee educational reform and determine the best techniques for advancing them — much as previous secretaries pivoted to the problematic “Common Core” structure. In practice, the department handles a lot of research and sets the basic educational momentum for the country.
For that reason, nominees tend to, at the least, have a history in education.
From Michigan to the Heartland of America
Betsy DeVos, let us be clear, does not have a background in education. Her supporters say this makes her an outsider like “the Don,” a reformer with big ideas and the momentum — or more importantly cash — to see them done.
The cash, at least, she has put to the good use of her influence. Personally worth about $5.1 billion according to Forbes, sitting Republican senators have received around $115,000 from the heiress herself, and around $950,000 from the entire DeVos family since 1980. Furthermore, as reported by MLive, “Betsy DeVos has detailed her $5.3 million in political donations over the last five years as part of the vetting process for the U.S. Education Secretary post,” and in a back and forth with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), she admitted it was possible her family at large had donated collectively around $200 million to Republican election efforts. Such donations were enhanced by the fact that in the last two election cycles alone, her family donated $8.3 million to super PACs devoted to assuring Republican dominance.
Despite that, even Sens. Susan Collins (R-Me.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) voted against the woman, based on the volume of opposition her nomination elicited from constituents and what they saw as limited qualifications for the job, along with the fact that she does not support public education.
Neither DeVos nor any of her children ever attended, worked in, or were sent to public schools. DeVos herself has no government experience outside of lobbying, which she has always extensively pushed to grant conservative religious schools vouchers for access to public funds with no strings attached. Similar facts saw her husband, Dick DeVos, run and get stomped in the midst of the 2006 race for governor of Michigan.
In her own hearing, she proved a complete lack of preparedness for the role she now will attempt to fill. She dodged every question she could, danced around the idea of standing up for students with disabilities, and while she seems to have a vague notion of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s existence, she was utterly confused in regards to it, seemingly mixing it up with state efforts. She had no idea what the concept of proficiency versus growth entailed — a core tenet of modern education efforts. She would not commit to enforcing sexual assault prevention and protection on college campuses because she called them, “premature.”
She has said in the past, when addressing Christian schools’ reliance on vouchers, that “Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.” Her family has notably supported conversion therapy for LGBTQ people over the years, backed anti-same sex marriage efforts, and her own husband, during the previously mentioned governor run, advocated for “the ideas of intelligent design that many scientists are now suggesting is a very viable alternative theory” in science curricula.
Our nation recognized very early on that public education was necessary for democracy or republics to thrive, but all Betsy DeVos has ever wished to do is divert taxpayer dollars to private, religious and for-profit schools with no oversight. She has always wanted them to gain the benefits without dealing with the costs. She calls it “choices and options,” and “innovation,” but in practice demonstrates the exact opposite.
Here, in Michigan, DeVos is a former Republican Party chairwoman and former chair of the pro-school-choice advocacy group American Federation for Children. She very much helped to spread charter schools throughout the state, and the results were this: “most of which have recorded student test scores in reading and math below the state average.” Innovation, indeed. She believes in choices but has never cared much for quality.
One need look no further than Detroit to see that — a city Republicans have always lauded as a prime example of Democrat failures. Thanks to DeVos, however, the city is littered with choices for schools. An excellent article by Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press examined the results of that choice including this sobering analysis: “failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and “choice” means the opposite for tens of thousands of children.”
But so long as there is profit, that is all that has ever mattered to the DeVos family.
So-called “School Choice” as the Death of Education
Desperate to hold Trump’s nominee at bay, Democrats in the Senate held an all night session protesting her nomination leading up to Tuesday’s vote. At the same time, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer hit out at all those who would eventually vote for her.
“The president’s decision to ask Betsy DeVos to run the Department of Education should offend every single American man, woman, and child who has benefitted from the public education system in this country,” Schumer said in a statement.
The United Federation of Teachers called DeVos a “danger to special education.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said her confirmation would threaten the very “existence of public education.”
I’ll be the first to admit there are some quality Charter School options out in the world. Yet, there are also quality Public School options. In the course of my own lifetime, I’ve seen behind the walls of both public and private institutions, and benefited from each. Yet when it comes down to it, the supposed medical balm of school choice for schools is, in truth, a poison for the entire public education system. Options, as I said before, often come at the expense of quality.
Charter schools could indeed be a force to nod about — if they also allowed accountability of their programs. They do not. They want the carrot — taxpayer funds provided to the public school system — without having to deal with the stick portion of the equation — accountability for how they use them and examination of what they teach. You simply can’t have it both ways, but DeVos has always advocated for it. She pushes a system that says: instead of helping underperforming schools, those who have the means should get out and leave the rest to rot.
Everyone wants what is best for their children. They fight tooth and nail to give them, in some cases, what they never had, and in others, to guarantee simply that they are ready to meet the world. Yet the question that DeVos represents is if you care enough to look beyond your own interests or care only for yourself — regardless of the consequences. Because there are always consequences. And when public institutions are broken down to benefit a few, more and more of those few always feel the squeeze with time. The few become fewer, and tighter entrenched. The many lament more and more. The separation, and the problem, grows.
The question is: does America wish to inflict such things on generations to come, locking the nation into a downward intellect spiral? Senators have already voted yes. There’s no changing that now. At this point, it’s on the hands of the people to punish them for it, and fight back against a broken system that has gone to benefit private agendas over public good.
“Democrats are trying to humiliate and embarrass some of these nominees,” White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway has told Fox News.
The fact is: candidates like Betsy DeVos embarrass themselves. On the practical end, though, humiliation is no longer enough. Humiliation only hurts those it’s directed at; it doesn’t save those who will suffer their wrath, or still be forced to endure their policies snark did little to block. Quality education and no less than the future of a nation depend on something more.
Pundits have gotten one thing right so far: it really is time to put what is best for children above all else.