Photo Credit: NPR
On Tuesday of this week, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as secretary of education by the United States Senate. The vote was extremely close with 50 senators, all republicans voting yes, and 50 senators, all democrats, and two republicans voting to block DeVos’ confirmation. Vice President, Mike Pence broke the tie with an obvious vote for confirming DeVos as education secretary. The two republicans who defected were Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Betsy DeVos is a billionaire who has made massive contributions to the Republican Party and has also been an ardent advocate for “school choice” policies.
DeVos has received criticism for her stances on issues and her lack of knowledge and experience on several education issues. This lack of knowledge was evident when in her confirmation hearing, DeVos repeatedly admitted her not knowing about laws important to her position. Betsy DeVos has never attended public school or university nor has she ever taken out a student loan. In addition to this, none of the DeVos family has ever relied on government sponsored education. DeVos infamously dodged a question on whether or not she would defund public schools. In addition to that, DeVos seemed to make up statistics that were not true, at one time even stating that student debt has risen by “980%”, something that is not true. When asked about how she would reduce student debt, DeVos refused to give detailed answers to several questions. DeVos also took criticism when in response to a question from Senator Murphy (D-CT) regarding whether or not firearms should be permitted in schools, she stated that the issue should be left up to states, citing that a rural school in Wyoming needs guns to protect against “potential grizzlies” referring to the fact that the school actually needed a fence to protect from bears. In fact, that school does not have any guns because there is no need for them.
Betsy DeVos is an ardent supporter of “school choice policies” including vouchers that can be used for school tuition fees. Voucher programs divert government funding away from public schools and into sending low-income children to private, for-profit schools. DeVos also supports charter schools and voucher programs that include religious schools. Proponents of vouchers state that they allow parents to make decisions about their children’s education. They cite that having many private school options allows market forces to increase the number of students in the most preferred schools. However, there are many ways that many Americans could by harmed by vouchers and other “school choice” programs. The money given to families in order to help them afford private school tuition is money that is saved by cutting funding from public schools. In addition, the voucher check that a low-income family receives is often less than the full cost of the private or charter school in their locality. This leaves many families with a choice between an underfunded public school with few resources or a private school which they cannot afford (not a very good choice). Most school voucher programs also subsidize religious schools, something that is constitutionally dubious. In DeVos’ home state of Michigan where voucher programs were implemented, largely due to lobbying by the DeVos family, many issues brought up by “school choice” programs came to light. Currently, many of the public schools in the Detroit, Michigan area are infamously underfunded, understaffed and in need of repair. Many of the harshest opponents to Betsy DeVos’ confirmation were teachers. In fact, most of the immense number of phone calls made to senators came from citizens mobilized by teachers’ unions.
Another concern that many people have about DeVos’ leadership in the department of education is that of protecting the rights of minority students, especially LGBTQ students and the teaching of religion in schools. Although she has donated to religious organizations that oppose laws against discrimination against gay students, DeVos pledged to protect all students when asked about the issues in her hearing. DeVos’ stance on religious curriculum is more complicated. She has advocated for teaching creationism over evolution in public schools in the past. When asked about her stance on the issue of teaching evolution, DeVos gave an answer which was extremely vague, stating that she “supported science”. When pressed further about her opinions, DeVos refused to go into further detail.
Another tense issue is that of special education for students with mental disabilities. When asked about whether or not she would support programs to help disabled students protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA by Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), DeVos responded that the issue was best left up to states. After being pressed by senators about her stance on the issue, DeVos doubled down, saying that she would enforce all laws passed by congress and supported special education and school choice for students with mental illnesses. However, voucher programs have often resulted in special needs students losing access to programs that help them.
In addition to her vague but controversial stances on issues, Betsy DeVos may have conflicts of interest or ethics problems. She allegedly has gained from investments in student debt and also allegedly plagiarized part of her written testimony to the Senate.
With all the controversy surrounding Betsy DeVos, many teachers, students, parents, and concerned citizens are wondering how much she can change the education department. The main thing that she can do immediately is reducing enforcement of discrimination laws, something she has pledged not to do. Instituting voucher programs would require congressional approval. Although Republicans hold a majority, many rural areas depend on strong public schools. Several Republicans from rural, midwestern states have constituents from these areas. With many congresspeople and senators up for re-election in 2018, we can be hopeful that a federal voucher program is unlikely to happen.