The Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as education secretary on Feb. 27, in what was one of the most contentious confirmation processes in modern political history. DeVos, one of Trump’s most controversial cabinet picks, was confirmed with an unprecedented 51-50 vote; Vice President Mike Pence intervened to break the Senate tie.
Educators expressed their concern over DeVos before, during and after her confirmation hearing, citing, among other things, her lack of experience in the field as a red flag.
“Betsy DeVos is singularly unqualified for the position, having never attended public school, taught in one, served as an administrator in one, or sent a child to one. In essence, everything she knows about public education could be learned by driving by a school, or flying over one,” said Bruce Torff, a professor and doctoral program director at Hofstra.
“Her performance at the Senate confirmation hearing was an embarrassment that revealed her total lack of knowledge and skill relevant to the position. She’s no more qualified to be Secretary of Education than she is to be an astronaut.”
While DeVos has never personally served as a school administrator or educator, she has had significant political involvement in education reform. She previously served as chairwoman for the board of Alliance for School Choice, was a board member of Advocates for School Choice, the American Education Reform Council and the Education Freedom Fund, and served as a chair for both Choices for Children and the Great Lakes Education Project.
In each of these roles, DeVos championed the importance of school choice. She served as an advocate for school vouchers, defined by the National Conference of State Legislators as “state-funded scholarships that pay for students to attend private school,” promoted charter schools and endorsed scholarship tax credit programs that permit businesses to allocate portions of their tax dollars to providing scholarships to students attending private schools.
DeVos’s involvement, however, is seen by some as affront to public school systems. “Her past experience and commentary indicate that she is committed to weakening – nay, tearing down – public education,” said Professor Andrea S. Libresco, the director of the minor in civic engagement program.
“She has funneled millions of dollars into ‘choice’ and charter policies in Michigan that have resulted in a decline in test scores. She tried to shut down the troubled Detroit public schools and replace them with charter, private (including discredited online schools) and religious schools, regardless of performance. She supports for-profit charter schools, the use of public money for religious education and, while she supports accountability for public schools, she opposes it for publicly funded, privately run schools (earning the opposition of even those in the charter school movement),” Libresco wrote in an emailed response.
This also brings to light another concern held by those in the education sector: the separation of church and state in the education system. In addition to championing school choice programs, DeVos has called education reform a way to “advance God’s kingdom” and that public schools have “displaced” churches.
“In her statements, she not only fails to honor the separation of church and state, she seeks to override it,” said Professor Jacqueline Grennon Brooks, the director of the Institute for the Development of Education in the Advanced Sciences.
DeVos has also pledged to further these agendas during her tenure as education secretary – promising to remain an advocate for school choice programs, while also diminishing the federal government’s role in education. This too has caused concerns within the education community as it may further threaten public schools.
“Her approval by Republicans in the United States Senate is an embarrassment. But the bigger issue of concern is the Republican/Trump plan to privatize public education in the United States through outsourcing, vouchers and tax credits, and to make them profitable by breaking teacher unions,” said Professor Alan Singer, the director of secondary education social studies teaching, learning and technology.
However, some educators have seen potential to DeVos’ proposals, particularly in the flexibility it may afford schools in innovating new teaching methods and curriculums.
“On the face of it, the federal government’s commitment to public education seems in jeopardy, and so too our democracy. But one can, perhaps, welcome the withdrawal of federal mandates, especially with respect to curriculum and teaching,” said Eduardo Duarte, professor of teaching, learning and technology.
“Less federal oversight would allow states, counties, cities and towns to become more creative and perhaps innovative with respect to the public education of our children and young adults. Here, then, is where we might find the silver lining in an otherwise ever darkening cloud arising over the White House: grass-roots community based and globally oriented education.”
Future teachers, however, have been less optimistic about both their career prospects and their work environments in the wake of DeVos.
“As a future teacher, I do believe this can impact my future,” said senior English education major Victoria Dempsey.
“I would tell DeVos to go to public schools across the U.S. and talk to some of the teachers there. Ask them why they wanted to become teachers and what they get out of being a teacher. I would tell DeVos to think about the three million public school teachers that have worked so hard to learn and teach and inspire the youth of America. I would tell DeVos to think about all of the children that attend public schools and what you would be doing to their education.”