DeVos doesn’t know the ABCs of public education
© Greg Nash

Betsy DeVos leaves education advocates even more worried about the future of public education policy under Trump. Like much in Washington these days, there were two completely different and contrary narratives following Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing last week.

Trump loyalists celebrated what appeared to be DeVos successful effort to keep from derailing her own confirmation, while public education advocates strengthen their belief that DeVos’ performance reiterated their worst fears about the pro-charter school champion.

But for her reference that guns might be needed in schools to fight off grizzly bears, the Republican Senate majority must be breathing a sigh of relief as they as prepare to confirm DeVos as the nation’s next election chief.

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On the other hand, educators and education advocates are reeling from a combination of frustration, incredulousness and downright anger having watched a hearing that revealed that DeVos lacks the fundamental experience and basic understanding of the issues one would want and expect in the person chosen to serve as the Secretary of the United States Department of Education.

On a wide variety of issues of concern to educators, parents and those who support public education, DeVos appeared ignorant of the law, unwilling to commit to implementing federal law or simply unwilling to answer questions about her agenda should she be confirmed.

In one of the most illuminating moments of the evening, HELP Committee ranking Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) asked DeVos, “Can you commit to us that you will not work to privatize public schools…?”

Although DeVos fundamentally ducked the question, retorting that she would strive to find “common ground” that would give parents “options,” she made it extremely clear that she would remain loyal to the charter school industry and those dedicated to privatizing significant segments of public education in the country.

In response to the answer to her question, Murray wirily observed, “I take that as not being willing to commit to not privatizing public education.”

While DeVos’ dedication to charter schools, privatization and the notion of “school choice” was on full display, DeVos appeared to be surprisingly unprepared to answer a wide variety of the questions posed by senators on the committee.

In particular, DeVos’ answers proved that she is either unaware or unsupportive of many of the core policies, duties and functions of the education department such as the federal laws protecting special education students and those that restrain for-profit universities.

After failing to adequately answer Sen. Maggie Hassan’s (D-NH) question on IDEA, the federal law guaranteeing services to student who require special education services, the Senator spoke for many when she observed, “It’s not about your ‘sensitivity’, it’s about upholding laws.” 

And then there was the back and forth with Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) in which DeVos was unable to explain the difference between proficiency and growth when it comes to the use of the corporate education reform movement’s beloved high-stakes Common Core standardized testing scheme.

Perhaps most surprising of all was DeVos’ failure to discuss her opinion of Title 1, the vitally important mechanism by which the federal government provides financial support to benefit the nation’s poorest students.

Summing up the feelings now held by many educators and education advocates, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), issued a statement after the hearing announcing that he would vote against the nomination of Betsy DeVos to serve as Education Secretary. Wyden stated,

“A bedrock principle of America’s public educational system is investing public money in schools meant to serve everyone, not siphoning off scarce taxpayer dollars to private or religious education. Unfortunately, the president-elect’s choice for Education Secretary has indicated she supports an approach that flies in the face of America’s long-time, commonsense investment in public education opportunities that recognizes education is an essential rung to climb the economic ladder. At her nomination hearing yesterday, Betsy DeVos also wavered on fundamental issues like keeping our students safe from gun violence, working to end sexual assault on college campuses, ensuring students with disabilities get a quality education and protecting all students against discrimination and harassment.”

For educators and education advocates, the message was painfully obvious. If Betsy DeVos becomes Secretary of Education, the department will be run by someone who not only lacks any meaningful experience with public schools, but is fundamentally opposed to the mission and scope of the nation’s traditional public education system. 

The confirmation process is designed to identify shortcoming and problems associated with nominees. 

Even putting DeVos right-wing, anti-LGBT legacy aside, those who support public schools have good reason to come away from her hearing with even more concern, fear and trepidation.

Pelto is a former state representative in Connecticut, and an education advocate. He is the founder and coordinator of the Education Bloggers Network, a confederation of more than 250 pro-public education bloggers from around the country. He was 2014 candidate for governor in Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanpelto


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