By Valerie Strauss
Public education was not much of an issue during the 2016 presidential campaign — but it sure is now as opposition grows to the Senate confirmation of Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s education secretary nominee, who once called the U.S. traditional public school system a “dead end.”
The confirmation hearing by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions had been set for Wednesday, but late Monday it was postponed until Jan. 17, with panel leaders releasing a statement saying the date was changed “at the request of the Senate leadership to accommodate the Senate schedule.” They did not note that Democrats had been pushing for a delay because an ethics review of DeVos has not been completed. Matt Frendewey, national communications director of the American Federation for Children, which DeVos founded, said in an e-mail, “It’s shameful that Democrats continue to play partisan politics with hollow attempts to disrupt what’s always been a bipartisan process.”
DeVos, a leader in the movement to privatize the U.S. public-education system, has quickly become a lightning rod in the education world since her nomination by Trump in November 2015.
Supporters say that as education secretary she would work to expand the range of choices that parents have in choosing a school for their children and that she is dedicated to giving every child an opportunity to succeed. One of them is Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who heads the committee that will vote on her nomination. He issued a statement on Tuesday saying that he had met with DeVos and that he knew that she will “make an excellent secretary of education” and “impress the Senate with her passionate support for improving education for all children.”
Her critics say that her long advocacy for vouchers and her push for lax regulation of charter schools reveals an antipathy to public education; they point to an August 2015 speech in which she said that the traditional public education system is a “dead end” and that “government truly sucks.”
Thousands of people have signed petitions, started Twitter campaigns and called congressional offices urging that DeVos not be confirmed. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), expressing concern about the nomination, sent DeVos a long list of questions she wants answered, and the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association sent a letter to Warren — who sits on the confirmation committee — expressing its concern about her nomination, saying in part:
Both President-elect Trump and Ms. DeVos are strong supporters of public charter schools, and we are hopeful they will continue the bipartisan efforts of the Clinton, Bush and Obama Administrations to promote the continued expansion of high quality charters while pursuing reforms that will strengthen traditional public schools.
But we are concerned about media reports of Ms. DeVos’ support for school vouchers and her critical role in creating a charter system in her home state of Michigan that has been widely criticized for lax oversight and poor academic performance, and appears to be dominated by for-profit interests.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who has worked alongside DeVos on some school reform issues, said in a December interview with the 74, a news website, that he had has “serious” issues with her confirmation.
And a coalition of more than 200 national nonprofit organizations on Monday sent a letter (see text below) to the Senate Education Committee accusing DeVos of seeking “to undermine bedrock American principles of equal opportunity, nondiscrimination and public education itself.” The letter was sent by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, composed of groups including the NAACP, the National Urban League, a variety of labor unions, and the League of Women Voters. Teach For America is a member, as is the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Sierra Club. (You can see the complete list of members here.)
The two major teachers unions are also working against her confirmation, mobilizing teachers to oppose her nomination. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, gave a speech Monday saying in part: “Betsy DeVos lacks the qualifications and experience to serve as secretary of education. Her drive to privatize education is demonstrably destructive to public schools and to the educational success of all of our children.”
There is a push, too, by her supporters to persuade the education panel to confirm her as education secretary, which seems likely despite the outcry against her.
Twenty Republican governors, for example, sent a letter to Alexander, saying that Trump had “made an inspired choice to reform federal education policy and allow state and local policymakers to craft innovative solutions to ensure our children are receiving the skills and knowledge to be successful in the world and modern workforce.”
Mitt Romney, a DeVos supporter, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that her nomination by Trump had “reignited the age-old battle over education policy.” He said that the debate is “between those in the education establishment who support the status quo because they have a financial stake in the system and those who seek to challenge the status quo because it’s not serving kids well.” (Translation: DeVos opponents are self-serving and DeVos and her supporters are thinking about the kids.)