Public schools will be under siege or under water if Betsy DeVos takes the helm of the U.S. Department of Education. Her answers at her confirmation hearing Tuesday ranged from the all-purpose dodge, "Interesting," to the non-answer, "That is something we can discuss."
DeVos offered up the standard crowd pleaser that we must end a "one-size-fits-all" approach to education, which somehow gets translated to we ought to privatize schools rather than let's figure out and fund innovation in our existing schools.
The hearing showed the deep partisan divide, with Republicans lauding DeVos as an outsider who will put parents and students before institutions and bureaucracies and Democrats pointing out her lack of experience and understanding of education and education law.
DeVos made the Democrats' job easier. The evasiveness of Donald Trump's nominee to even softball questions -- should the federal government, by virtue of the funding it provides, enforce special education requirements -- is worrisome.
She was incapable of a simple "yes" on that special ed question from Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, telling him special education ought to be a state matter. During that terse exchange, DeVos appeared to not grasp that federal civil rights laws require states meet specific standards for special ed if they accept federal dollars.
After rephrasing his question to prod a response from DeVos, Kaine gave up and said, "So some states might be good to kids with disabilities, and other states might not be so good, and then what, people can just move around the country if they don't like how their kids are being treated?"
Special education standards and quality once varied among states and children often ended up warehoused or ignored, which is why the feds entered the fray. That critical chapter of history eluded DeVos, who appeared to have done no prep on federal education law. Under later questioning, she told senators she might be confused on the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The Michigan billionaire and school choice champion has no education training, did not herself attend public schools or send her own children -- making her a departure from prior education secretaries who had long years in the profession and a strong commitment to public education.
Many posters here on the blog have deemed DeVos a "breath of fresh air," which, after watching the hearing, must be a euphemism for knowing little about the job, the history of public education or current law.
Ignorance may be bliss to those supporting DeVos. However, as any civil rights lawyer will tell you, neither ignorance nor fresh air is a defense against failing to enforce the laws of the land or flouting those laws.
DeVos declined to commit that all schools getting tax dollars should be held to the same standards. She fought efforts for higher accountability of charter schools in her home state of Michigan, which has both some of the weakest oversight and, in Detroit, lowest test score growth compared with other cities participating in the urban NAEP trials. It would be difficult to build a case for choice based on the performance of charter schools in her state.
As Chalkbeat reported: "DeVos and her husband played a role in getting Michigan’s charter school law passed in 1993, and ever since have worked to protect charters from additional regulation. 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."
Nor would DeVos commit to continuing the U.S. Department of Education's efforts to fight bullying and inequities in school discipline, declining to answer whether the agency under her direction would collect data on suspensions and expulsions, bullying and harassment.
Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren targeted DeVos' lack of experience, saying, "As Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos would be in charge of running a $1 trillion student loan bank. She has no experience doing that. In fact, Betsy DeVos has no experience with student loans, Pell Grants, or public education at all. Tonight at her confirmation hearing, I asked Betsy DeVos a straight forward set of questions about her education experience and commitment to protecting students cheated by for-profit colleges. If Betsy DeVos can’t commit to using the Department of Education’s many tools and resources to protect students from fraud, I don’t see how she can be the Secretary of Education."
DeVos was not the only confused about how education works. An alarmed reader sent me this note about Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson's comments at the hearing:
Did Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson intentionally ask misleading questions at the Betsy DeVos Secretary of Education hearing? Is he confused about the source of Georgia Pre-K dollars? Does he note the difference between taxpayer dollars and Georgia Lottery dollars? Is he suggesting taxpayer dollars be used for private and charter for-profit education corporations and, therefore, not supporting public education students and public school teachers 100 percent?
(Source: 1:01:58 CSPAN.org of the Betsy DeVos confirmation hearing for Secretary of State January 17,2017) “SEN. ISAKSON: THAT BRINGS ME TO THIS POINT. SENATOR MURRAY WAS TALKING ABOUT PRIVATIZING SCHOOLS AND TALKING ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF THE LACK OF IMPORTANCE OF CHARTER SCHOOLS AND THE IMPORTANCE OF PROTECTING PUBLIC EDUCATION. SHE TALKED ABOUT HER GOAL AND MY GOAL, WHICH WE HAVE SHARED, AND THAT IS TO WORK TOWARDS REQUIRING PREKINDERGARTEN FOR EVERY STUDENT IN THE COUNTRY, BECAUSE WE BELIEVE IT IS IMPORTANT. WE DID IT IN GEORGIA. HOW WE DID IT IN GEORGIA WAS TAKING FAITH-BASED REEDUCATION OR -- FAITH-BASED PREKINDERGARTEN PROGRAMS AND PRIVATE INSTITUTIONS TO PROVIDE US WITH THE CLASSROOMS AND TEACHERS TO TEACH THE CURRICULUM. TODAY IN GEORGIA, 16,000 FOUR-YEAR-OLD KIDS GO TO PREKINDERGARTEN PAID FOR BY THE STATE, DELIVERED BY A VARIETY OF PRIVATE AND PUBLIC INSTITUTIONS. MY POINT IS, IF YOU ARE GOING TO MEET THE CHALLENGES OF PUBLIC EDUCATION TODAY AND HAVE TO THE BIT ON THE RESOURCES AVAILABLE, YOU WILL NEVER GET TO WHERE YOU WANT TO GO, BUT IF YOU GET THE PRIVATE SECTOR MAKING AN INVESTMENT IN PUBLIC EDUCATION AND HAVE STANDARDS EVERYONE COMMITS TO, YOU CAN GREATLY EXPAND THE OPPORTUNITY OF EDUCATION, GREATLY EXPAND THE ACCESSIBILITY OF EDUCATION, AND DO IT THROUGH FAITH-BASED AND PRIVATIZATION -- PRIVATE INSTITUTIONS.”
(Source: Georgia.Gov Free PreK in Georgia: How Does It Work?” June 16,2016) "Georgia’s Pre-K program is a nationally recognized success. It’s the nation’s first universal Pre-Kindergarten program entirely funded by the state lottery. Thanks to former Governor Zell Miller, Georgia Pre-K is not marginalized by income or location, and because it operates entirely from lottery funds, it’s not subject to taxpayer budget cuts."