National Beat Reporter
The resistance of Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as Secretary of the Department of Education was a rock throw short of a riot.
Senate offices were overwhelmed with 1.5 million calls a day and Democrats held a 24 hour speech marathon of on the floor in protest; even two Republican senators ended up defecting.
However, these dedicated efforts concluded in vain when Vice President Mike Pence cast his tie-breaking ballot, resulting in a slim win for DeVos at a 51-50 vote.
Now as the Secretary of Education, many DeVos dissenters are worried for the future of American education.
One of the biggest concerns revolving around the unseasoned Secretary is her unfamiliarity with the public education system. Her Senate hearings featured a handful of eyebrow-raising instances that made many question how well versed she was in education policy. DeVos once referenced the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as an issue left to the states, despite the IDEA being a federal policy.
Allegations of her ignorance are rooted in the fact her and her children are all graduates of only private institutions.
“She is terribly ill-informed,” Jim Pearson, who had worked as an elementary school teacher for 37 years, told The Bottom Line. “She is demonstrably ignorant about the complexities of subjects that anyone on a school board would know.”
Pearson recently retired from teaching the fifth grade at Kellogg Elementary School in Goleta, and has been teaching in Goleta for the past 20 years. From his perspective as an educator, one of his biggest concerns stems from DeVos’s advocacy for voucher programs that promote “school choice.”
“I believe the voucher system is a terrible idea,” said Pearson. “[The voucher program] is toted as an opportunity for poor people to have school choice, but regrettably even if they choose private schools there is a real lack of transparency on the performance of those private schools — there is little accountability.”
DeVos has been a proponent for charter schools and private education. Prior to her nomination, DeVos was chair of the American Federation for Children, an advocacy organization focused on allowing families to consider education options outside of traditional public schools, which entail the support of publicly funded charter schools and tax sponsored programs that give families “vouchers” to spend on private school tuition.
According to the National Center of Education Statistics, a public charter school is defined as a “publicly funded school that is typically governed by a group or organization under legislative contract (or charter) with the state or jurisdiction.” Charter schools can be operated by for- and non-profit companies. These schools are exempt from state and county regulations and abide by the standards laid out in its charter, therefore allowing charter schools to operate with a certain degree of autonomy without school district oversight.
“She is looking at the world through a very privileged lens,” Pearson said, referencing DeVos’s billionaire status and private education. “Sadly, this restricts her ability to empathize and understand the needs of people of the real world.”
The idea of a nationwide voucher system seems to leave a sour taste in public education’s mouth. However, according to University of California, Santa Barbara political science professor Lorraine McDonnell, the possibility of this system to be a nationwide standard seems very unlikely.
“I think there is going to be some red states that are going to pick [the voucher systems] up. A good example of a red state that has picked it up is Indiana,” said McDonnell, referencing Pence’s expansion of “school choice” programs during his tenure as Governor of Indiana. Approximately 60 percent of Indiana children are eligible for vouchers, making the state’s single voucher program the largest in the nation.
“I think you’re gonna see more and more of [those programs] happening,” said McDonnell. “I don’t think she is going to get much federal money to be able to push it, but she has the bully pulpit. I think she is going to make is easier for states who want to do it to do it.”
McDonnell has researched education policy at the federal, state, and local level, encompassing topics such as the politics of student testing, immigration education, and pivotal federal education policies like the No Student Left Behind Act and All Students Succeed Act.
She has been part of numerous education organizations as well. McDonnell served on the National Research Council’s Board of Testing and Assessment for seven years. She is also the past president of the American Education Research association and is currently an elected member of the National Academy of Education.
McDonnell stated that since the constitutional jurisdiction of education rests with the states, the federal government operates similarly as a junior partner, contributing funds amounting from 10 to 12 percent of each state’s total education budget.
“Even though the federal government is paying 10 to 12 percent, that money is categorically aimed at certain students — such as students of low income, students of disabilities — and the government can set priorities in how it’s used,” McDonnell said. “Under the Bush and Obama administration, they set priorities that way that moved education for better and for worse.”
“Priorities are changing now, both because of the new administration and the Every Student Succeeds Act, that sends a lot more responsibility and authority back to the states,” she said. “We are going to see a lot of variation from state to state and DeVos is going to be okay with that.”
Although the final say in education is vested with the states, one of the active roles the federal government takes on in public education is civil rights enforcement. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is responsible for monitoring and correcting issues such as school segregation and unfair discipline.
McDonnell predicts that under DeVos’s oversight this enforcement power will be diminished.
“I think what’s going to happen is educational equity is not going to be as pursued as vigorously as before,” said the political science professor.
Diana Arya, an assistant professor of the Gevirtz School of Education, hopes that no big changes occur under DeVos’s tenure. Arya’s research focuses on literacy in K-12 and professional science environments.
“A possibility of why DeVos is there is that everyone at the ‘House that is White’ sees this as a non-cabinet,” satirized Arya. “They could be asking, ‘how can we get someone who couldn’t do much, to not do anything?’”
“I do not know what will happen, but I hope no action will happen,” Arya said. “I’d rather nothing happen.”