President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Education Department, with its 4,400 workers and $200 billion budget, squeaked out a Senate confirmation Tuesday with a tiebreaker vote by Vice President Mike Pence.
Billionaire Betsy DeVos, 59, is best known for her ardent support of vouchers for private schools and contributions to the Republican Party. Her testimony during the Senate hearings showcased surprising gaps in her understanding of public education law. But while her stumbles and evasions under questioning lost her votes even among GOP senators, the wider miss is her assumption that parents can judge a school by its cover.
Trump’s campaign pledge was to shift $20 billion to vouchers out of money now going to public schools for programs like special education, English learner support and teacher training. States with voucher systems in place for private schools would get priority. He saw a kindred soul in DeVos.
Like Trump, DeVos never went to a public school. She grew up in Holland, Mich., following a Christian education. Her father, Edgar Prince, made a fortune as an auto parts supplier. She graduated from Calvin College, a small Christian college, in Grand Rapids, Mich., with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and political science. She married a fellow billionaire. They have four children and five grandchildren.
Her website says she leads the The Windquest Group, a privately held investment firm, and was elected chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party four times. She describes herself as “an innovator, a disruptor and an advocate,” saying her efforts “are focused on advancing educational choices.”
The choices she advocated at the hearings included for-profit colleges and virtual schools, industry segments tarred by spectacularly bad players. Those educational options provide the best business-side argument for standardized metrics: How else can good schools distance themselves from the scandals?
The DeVoses spent millions to counter efforts in Michigan to increase oversight of public charters, according to a Detroit Free Press overview that also lists problems of a system without those checks, including insider deals and no sanctions on longtime, low-performing schools.
DeVos and her husband founded a nonprofit public charter high school that pairs interest in aviation with core curriculum. She has never been a teacher, but neither were seven of the previous 11 education secretaries.
President Jimmy Carter created the Cabinet post in 1979, according to a list compiled by Education Week. The ED had part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, but came into its own as the nation’s first federal special education law was being implemented.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, Secretary of Education in 1991-93, led the DeVos hearings. In his introduction, he gave a full-throated endorsement of DeVos’ efforts to give low-income children financial resources to choose private and religious schools, comparing vouchers to the GI bill and Pell grants.
“Why is such a great idea for college students deemed to be such a dangerous idea for K-through-12 students? Many of us believe competition produces the best colleges and it might produce the best schools, ” he said.
In testimony, DeVos said she saw the issue of poor families unable to afford private schools as a great injustice. She time and again said states should make education decisions, though it appears likely California’s decisions will cost it dearly under her administration.
DeVos also focused school choice at the family level, speaking as if only scholarships stood between poor parents and the perfect school.
In her steadfast theme that parents know best, and that no other oversight is needed, she does not seem to have thought through how hard it is to research a range of school options without any standard measuring stick. Testing, for all its faults, does at least give parents a clue to how well children fare in academics. Public schools also have to divulge their discipline issues, graduation rates, English learners achieving fluency and how they spend every dime.
DeVos refused, in the face of repeated questioning, to say private schools should face equal scrutiny.
Public schools also have to take all comers, no matter how terrible their behavior or how profound their disability. Private schools can pick and choose, and while public charters cannot refuse difficult students, the lottery for high-performing schools means many will not get in anyway.
Beyond the challenges of a choice that includes being chosen, low-income parents are more likely to have to juggle odd work hours and get by without reliable transportation to drive their children to school each day. For parents with addictions, incarcerated family members or coping with layoffs or debilitating illness, the assumption that they would research and keep tabs on all their educational options seems a stretch.
DeVos also groped for answers to a question cutting to the heart of the shift from the No Child Left Behind Act, which measured schools by scores – proficiency. The Every Student Succeeds Act replacing NCLB, which she will need to implement, measures student improvement from the previous year, or growth.
Proficiency and growth. Not everyone in the nation knows those hot-button words, but everyone who follows education does. That she missed the vocabulary means she has not followed five years of intense national controversy around federal oversight of public education. Other gaffes appeared to show she did not know special education rights were federal law, and failed to appreciate the fear around school shootings when asked about guns on campus by the senator representing Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Were they just missteps on the first rung of a tall learning curve? Maybe, but it was like a mayor not knowing the names of the town’s major streets. It signals DeVos has not paid attention to public school issues, and did not do her homework. Disapproval of public education, then, becomes disinterest.
What does this mean for education in California? One in every eight public school students in the United States lives in the Golden State, making it the biggest kid in the sandbox. Whether that gives it weight or makes it an easy target remains to be seen.
When California refused to implement teacher evaluations tied to test scores, it gave up federal incentive funding under President Barack Obama, but kept existing dollars. It also refused to report student scores the first year of Common Core testing, over federal objections.
But it still needs the money. Federal funding makes up 9 percent of the $77 billion California spends on elementary through high schools, just shy of $7 billion. While Proposition 55’s passage in November helped maintain state funding, it did not raise new money that would have shielded schools from federal cuts.
Under Proposition 55, the state will keep – not gain – between $4 billion and $11 billion from top-tier income taxes that would have expired this year. It will still lose the sales tax portion of education taxes approved in an earlier initiative.
Overall, the state spends near the national average per child in unadjusted dollars. But factor in the cost of living in this state, which most studies do, and we fall at or near the bottom, making the risks to education in this state under this administration all too clear.
Here are prior secretaries of education:
1979-1981 Shirley M. Hufstedler, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals
1981-1985 Terrel H. Bell, former high school science teacher, superintendent and Utah state education lead
1985-1988 William J. Bennett, college instructor with a Ph.D. in philosophy
1988-1990 Lauro F. Cavazos, medical school professor and president of Texas Tech University
1990-1991 (acting) Ted Sanders, former classroom teacher and state education leader for Nevada and Illinois
1991-1993 Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee, now senator
1993-2001 Richard Riley, former governor or South Carolina
2001-2005 Roderick Page, former teacher and superintendent of Houston public schools
2005-2009 Margaret Spellings, a high-level White House aide who had worked for the Texas school boards association
2009-2015 Arne Duncan, who mentored kids and ran Chicago’s magnet school program
2016-2017 John B. King Jr., former high school social studies teacher, led charter schools, was state education leader for New York
Source: Education Week