Debates about public education stretch back to the country's very beginnings. The then-novel idea of public schools had an advocate in none other than Thomas Jefferson, yet compulsory schooling was not a nationwide thing in America until 1920. (Widespread reform is a slow-moving beast in education.) Questions about who should attend and at what age later gave way to disagreements about everything from curriculum to funding structures to teacher accountability and the relative merits of charter schools. Americans are passionately serious about education; they are also in a centuries-long dispute over what quality education means, and how best to achieve it. Into this context, enter President-elect Trump's pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos and her unapologetic commitment to charter schools and vouchers.
DeVos is a long-time donor to the Republican party, a billionaire who backs conservative aims in education, such as encouraging the expansion of charter schools and increasing school vouchers. (The voucher program takes state-allocated tax dollars for public school and gives that money to individual parents who want to send their children to a private school.)
Many public school teachers - and unions in particular - see these programs as an existential threat to their ability to provide the services kids need. And the following quotes from DeVos show why many teachers and parents are concerned about what she might do as head of the Education department.
The Separation Of Church And State
At a meeting in 2001, Betsy DeVos said her Christian faith is a primary driver of her support for education reform. "Our desire is ... to confront the culture in which we all live today in ways that will continue to help advance God’s Kingdom." Many close to DeVos are adamant that she is not sinister. But there is understandable pause many will take from such a statement, especially since her voucher policy would admittedly benefit religious schools.
A Critical Take On Public Schools
In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy magazine, DeVos highlighted the growing number of charter and private schools. On the topic of public schools, DeVos then said "...let’s be clear, in many cases, they are failing." On its own, this statement might not be cause for concern. But taken in the larger context of DeVos' exclusive focus on charters and private schools, it seems to indicate a broader perspective on public schools as a whole. One that suggests they are best thought of as a monolith, and a failing one at that.
Unconditional Support For Vouchers
Perhaps even more controversial than the debate over charter schools is the fight over vouchers. Voucher programs give low-income parents a percentage of the state tax funds set aside for their child's education, if they want to use that money to instead pay for private schooling. Naturally, this deprives public schools, often in struggling areas, of much-needed funding. DeVos was behind a failed 2000 push in Michigan to bring in a voucher program there, describing its defeat as "really tragic." Cash-strapped public schools would tend to disagree.
Zero Problems With Outsize Influence Of Big Money
DeVos comes from an extremely wealthy family. Worth keeping in mind is that neither she, nor any of her children, actually attended a public school themselves. And DeVos has no problem with using money to influence politicians. "I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right ... We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues," wrote DeVos in 1997.
High School Boredom & The Myth Of Technology's Powers
Betsy DeVos does not remember her high school years fondly. Citing the unsubstantiated but much-hyped belief that technology will increase student learning, DeVos said, "I mean, I was bored all the way through high school. I can only imagine how much more boring it is today, when you check all of those new technologies at the door and go sit in rows of desks and listen to somebody talk at you for 30 or 40 minutes." As a former public school teacher who witnessed how destructive tech is for many students and their learning potential, I beg to differ. (Also, why does someone who seemed to so dislike school get a megaphone for how schools should be run?)
Firearms On School Grounds, Because Grizzly Bears
There were a number of problems with DeVos' answers to Tuesday's Senate confirmation questions, but none more bizarre than her seeming support of guns on school property due to threats from...bears.
Using the unusual example of a school with legitimate wildlife threats, DeVos refused to absolutely outlaw guns on school campuses. "I would imagine that there's probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies," she said, referencing a Wyoming school. Needless to say, bear attacks aren't a commonplace school threat.
A Lack Of Basic Knowledge On How To Track Student Learning
As a former teacher, I know the discussion over whether students should be tracked based on proficiency (whether or not they meet state standards for their grade level) or growth (whether or not they are consistently learning more and better than the previous year). I happen to be on the side of growth, though my opinion is that both measures are important. Betsy DeVos appears not to have an opinion, as she had to ask for clarity on what Sen. Al Franken's question concerning that debate even meant.
All in all, proponents and supporters of public schools will likely find much to disagree with in the appointment of Betsy DeVos. Given the way her confirmation hearing proceeded yesterday, it looks unlikely that she'll have persuaded many naysayers to her cause.