"DeVos isn’t an educator, or an education leader. She’s not an expert in pedagogy or curriculum or school governance. In fact, she has no relevant credentials or experience for a job setting standards and guiding dollars for the nation’s public schools." - Stephen Henderson, Detroit Free Press.
Though it comes as no surprise that Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education is as unqualified as the rest of his cabinet picks, it is still essential to dissect the reasons behind her ineptitude. Betsy DeVos, again, like many of Trump’s picks, has been a career billionaire. She was born of aristocratic Dutch lineage in Michigan to billionaire parents and has served as chair of the Michigan Republic Party from 2003 to 2005 on a platform of pro-school-choice, pro-charter schools and pro-voucher system.
During DeVos’ senate confirmation hearing, senator Tim Kaine asked her a simple question on public funded schools having accountability to which she kept repeating, “I support accountability” like a talking-points broken record. It was a cowardly and insultingly hypocritical answer from someone who has paid grand sums of money to block said accountability. Even when Kaine asked her to answer in a yes or no manner, she was unrelenting with her “I support accountability” refrain. It felt like hearing a guilty person repeatedly pleading the fifth, which only adds to the perception of their guilt for it is such a clear device, used like a last resort parachute by a terribly amateur sky-diver.
DeVos displayed her utter unfamiliarity with the language and issues concerning student assessments during her hearing. Many “career-educationalists” and authorities in the field have been debating the value of assessing students on the basis of proficiency or growth, i.e: what level they should be on given their grade (prescriptive) or how much they have improved given their individual average. Both have merits and demerits and choosing a system requires extensive knowledge into the different types of learning. But DeVos stumbles to even feign knowledge of the terms themselves.
Perhaps our shock is best applied not to her lack of qualification, but for the deeply problematic policies she has enacted in Michigan and presumably wishes to apply to the rest of the country such as "school choice." At first glance, the term seems innocuous and righteous. On the left we are mainly pro-choice for reproductive rights, why not for education? The answer is because it serves as a for an effort to re-segregate and de-fun public schools. Instead of barring students of color from certain schools, this system aims to extract white students from such schools and into predominantly white schools, leaving the former public school quasi or not so quasi-defunct.
Amanda Marcotte writes an in-depth exploration of Betsy DeVos' history in Salon, where she states that "while schools schools can no longer legally discriminate on racial grounds, the [white] academies persist to this day, using geography and income inequality to remain almost as white as they used to be."
According to Marcotte, Trump and DeVos have "a radical agenda to direct education funding away from public schools and towards private schools, making quality education harder for students of color to access." Much like how "Obamacare" requires a diverse number of applicants in order to function effectively so that the young and able contribute to the costs of the sick and ensure quality medical services to all. If one portion of the population, in this case, the young and able, exempts themselves, the whole system falls short-- which is what is happening in schools as evidenced by Detroit (where DeVos began her foray into school flipping). Amanda quotes Kristina Rizga of Mother Jones as saying, "Detroit’s schools — where 84 percent of students are black and 80 percent are poor — have been in steady decline since charter schools started proliferating: Public school test scores in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have remained the worst among large cities since 2009."
Charter schools have been a point of contention in the educational system for a while now due to their lack of consistency and definition. Charter schools typically use public funds to run private-like schools and often are privately owned with little to no universal regulation.
According to Chalkbeat, “when Michigan lawmakers this year were considering a measure that would have added oversight for charter schools in Detroit, members of the DeVos family poured $1.45 million into legislators’ campaign coffers — an average of $25,000 a day for seven weeks. Oversight was not included in the final legislation.”
Not only has DeVos insidiously re-segregated Detroit schools, but has also thwarted supervision of such schools, and if there ever was a place where supervision is elemental, schools, and the public money they use, is one.
Detroit Free Press editor Stephen Henderson calls this a “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.” He writes, "she is, in essence, a lobbyist — someone who has used her extraordinary wealth to influence the conversation about education reform, and to bend that conversation to her ideological convictions despite the dearth of evidence supporting them."
DeVos' astounding floundering at her hearing did not end there. Tim Kaine asked her about the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); a federal law passed in 1975 that ensures students with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate education, and if she believes all schools that receive public funding should uphold it. Once again she displayed unfamiliarity with the act and the fact that it is a federal law, stating, “I think that is a matter that is best left to the states.” Kaine pressed on about the federal requirement, seeing as it is a federal law, to which she exposed sheer surprise and dodged the question, refusing, like before, to provide a definitive answer.
The Detroit Free Press, which has been watching DeVos and the results of the pervasiveness of the charter school system backed by her and her family’s money, notes that, “In Brightmoor, the only high school left is Detroit Community Schools, a charter boasting more than a decade of abysmal test scores and, until recently, a superintendent who earned $130,000 a year despite a dearth of educational experience or credentials.”
It is not only low-income students, students of color, and disabled students that will be negatively affected by DeVos’ shortsightedness, victims of sexual assault will face challenges too. Katie Van Syckle recently unpacked the Trump and administration and DeVos’ relationship to Title IX in New York magazine. During his term as president, Obama wrote Title IX Guidance Letter which interpreted the law as, it is the responsibility of any private or public schools (that use any public funding) to guarantee an educational atmosphere free of gender-based violence and take “immediate and effective” steps to respond.
One of these steps was to “designate at least one employee to coordinate their efforts to comply with and carry out their responsibilities," known now as Title IX coordinators. These are the staff that students can take their complaints of assaults to directly. Because the Title IX should have no other role in the institution they are exempt of conflict of interest and able to conduct investigations and mediate school-based “trials” for the victims.
Title IX isn’t itself new. It came about in 1972 and stated that: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
However, many sexual violence acts rose in campuses across the country. In Van Syckle’s piece, she writes, “According to data from National Institute of Justice, one in five women experienced completed or attempted rape while in college.”
Statistics like these elicited a strong reaction from Obama, who found the need to interpret the law for schools who were doing little to nothing to prevent and or arbitrate such high numbers of incidents, hence Obama’s letter. And that is what is under threat by DeVos’ nomination.
Van Syckle asks, “How could a Trump administration undo these efforts?” The bleak answer, “Because Obama’s 2011 guidance letter is just his administration’s interpretation of Title IX, a Trump administration could ignore this interpretation and instead encourage the police to handle these crimes, and tell colleges these reports are not their responsibility to address.”
Even more pressing, she asks “What are the chances this will happen?” to which she offers even bleaker yet plausible speculation —“ Between Betsy DeVos not committing to uphold Obama’s guidance letter, and Trump’s own distaste for the Department of Education, anything is possible. (Trump has said, he would like to eliminate the Department of Education entirely, calling it “massive and largely unnecessary” — although his nomination of DeVos suggests the Department of Education will be around for a little bit longer.)”
One could surmise that like the EPA, Trump is only selecting DeVos as a political termite that will whittle the very institution she is charged to uphold from the inside until it is rendered obsolete.
Betsy DeVos has said that “as a mother” she knows how schools should be run, but it seems more likely “as a billionaire” she knows how to pour money into actions her party supports.
Oligarchy aside, let’s take a deeper look a DeVos’ roster of policies. Second amendment wise, it is clear that DeVos will go to any length to protect and promote gun ownership as evidenced by her exchanges with Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who is from Sandy Hook and has clear reasons to be critical of gun violence, during her hearing, which the Daily Show expertly called out. Murphy asked DeVos, “You can’t say definitively today if guns shouldn’t be in schools?” to which she refused to say guns should belong in schools on account of bears: “I refer back to Senator Enzi” a pro-gun Republican Senator of Wyoming, “and the school he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyoming — I would imagine that there, there is probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.” And no, that is not a euphemism for a dark shooting episode, she means actual grizzly bears. This administration is nothing if not apt at fabricating alternative realities, perhaps DeVos should consider a career in speculative fiction. The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah said the show “called the school, and they told us that they don’t have a gun, because they have a fence and bear spray, and that works fine.”
David A. Graham compiled a great list of no-harm bear school trips in The Atlantic:
“In 2013, students in Montclair, New Jersey, were put on lockdown after a black bear was spotted near an elementary school. The bear was eventually found in a tree, shot down with a tranquillizer gun, and freed. Something similar happened in Ridgewood, New Jersey, the following year. That animal 'caused no harm,' The New York Times assured readers. In 2011, a bear cavorted outside Tualatin Elementary School in Oregon before being caught and released in the wild. Bears have been tranquilized or trapped when they got too close to schools in states from Connecticut to Florida to Idaho, though it’s just as common for them to simply clear out before anyone can do anything. In 1985, employees at a girls’ school in upstate New York tried to run one off but only succeeded in scaring it up a tree, from whence animal-control officials had to retrieve it.”
Which drives Noah’s point home, that some preventative barrier and some spray or tranquilizer can do the trick.
Wyoming news who spoke to Ray Schulte, the superintendent of district Wapiti is part of, “Actually, there isn't a gun on the campus, because having one would violate federal law.” Betsy DeVos may work to change this law, but there is a litany of educational issues that should be prioritized, actually, one of which is reducing violence, and bettering education.
This list won’t change Betsy DeVos’ position, but it might prompt her to dispense and honest answer about her motivations and views. It did, however, spur some opportune tweets, including from Senator Enzi himself:
DeVos had the pleasure of being examined by former Democratic candidate and outspoken critic of privatized education, Bernie Sanders, who got right to the point during her hearing when he asked how much money her family had contributed to the Republican Party, to which she coyly responded, “I don’t know” but because unlike her, Bernie has done his homework, and he revealed that the number is “200 million dollars.” He goes onto the ask the million dollar question: “Do you think that if you and your family had not made hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to the Republican Party, that you would be sitting here today?”
While decrying “the swamp," this administration is tunringinto a private beach.
You can sign a petition to stop DeVos' confirmation here.
Top image via moveon.org @moveon
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