Does Betsy DeVos Really Believe in Public Schools?

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In her brief confirmation hearing, Donald Trump’s nominee to become U.S. secretary of Education made it clear she thought parents, not taxpayers, should call the shots. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For reasons that are not clear, the Senate held its confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of Education, late on Tuesday, and each senator was limited to one five-minute round of questions. Democrats on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee complained a lot about the brevity of the hearing, which reduced the time DeVos had to bob and weave her way through potentially perilous questions. “I look forward to working with you on that issue” was her most frequent answer.

DeVos still had to put up with acerbic comments about her vast wealth, her incomplete ethics paperwork, and her potential conflicts of interest. She was pressed to explain aspects of her educational philosophy (and Trump’s) in areas where they are not widely known. She labored to sidestep or minimize highly controversial issues like Common Core education standards. Elizabeth Warren mentioned Trump’s “fake university” and suggested “crooks and swindlers would do back-flips” at DeVos’s intention to “review” regulations disliked by for-profit higher-education institutions. Patty Murray brought up Trump’s Access Hollywood comments, and DeVos was challenged on her own commitment to fight sexual assault on college campuses. While there were many of these contentious exchanges, the nominee managed to keep her composure.

DeVos’s big challenge, however, was to defend her long-time advocacy for the use of public funds for private schools with a minimum of accountability. And despite the best efforts of several Democrats and even some Republicans (notably Lisa Murkowski) to get a clear commitment from her with respect to accountability, she kept returning to vague assertions.

DeVos’s prepared opening statement to the committee provided an important clue that her idea of accountability is not one most policy-makers would share. She continually embraced the principle that public-education policy should be all about what parents want, with occasional kibitzing from teachers and school administrators.

I share President-elect Trump’s view that it’s time to shift the debate from what the system thinks is best for kids to what moms and dads want, expect and deserve.

Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child, and they know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, religious, or any combination thereof. Yet, too many parents are denied access to the full range of options… choices that many of us – here in this room – have exercised for our own children.

Why, in 2017, are we still questioning parents’ ability to exercise educational choice for their children? I am a firm believer that parents should be empowered to choose the learning environment that’s best for their individual children.

That is very clear. And if it is not, there’s this conclusory statement: “For me, it’s simple: I trust parents, and I believe in our children.”

Who’s left out in a publicly financed education system in which individual “moms and dads” call all the shots? The people financing that system, the public itself. Yes, many of them are “moms and dads,” too — but in their capacity as taxpayers and as allegedly self-governing voters they should have the right to ensure that public dollars benefit the public as a whole via a system that offers equal access and train a well-educated citizenry. And this is the very idea that separates DeVos from actual defenders of public education, including many who support public-school choice and public charter schools (privately operated public schools that are free, that offer equal access, and that are accountable to public authorities via a specific performance agreement, a.k.a. a “charter”).

DeVos and her husband have devoted themselves and much of their vast wealth to severing any link between public-education funding and public accountability, championing the idea that parents, with zero accountability to anyone, should be the sole distributors of taxpayer dollars. That’s why they have supported attaching funds to the individual child, to follow them wherever their parents choose. And that’s why in addition to supporting the use of public funds at private or religious schools — or for religiously motivated home-schooling — the DeVoses have fought to make charter public schools in their own state of Michigan as unaccountable as possible — contradicting the very idea of the “charter.”

Is it possible parents handed a public subsidy and total freedom to use it however they want could make a poor education decision for their kids or their community? Of course they could, particularly if they are being advised by their spiritual leaders to steer those public dollars to the Academy of the Vengeful God, where boys are taught to be servant-leaders to their submissive homemaking wives. (LGBT folk need not apply!)

Asked back in 2001 if she disagreed with the idea that private schools should rely on private dollars for their support, DeVos said this:

There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education … [versus] what is currently being spent every year on education in this country … Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s Kingdom.

It is perfectly possible for a secretary of Education to serve her or his God and the American people simultaneously. Using public schools to place the latter in submission to the former without their consent is to betray the public trust.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t time for such deep questions at Tuesday’s hearing. The committee is set to vote on DeVos’s confirmation next week, probably on more-or-less a party-line basis. Barring some unexpected disclosure, she will probably become the first secretary of Education whose commitment to the very idea of public schools remains in question.

Does Betsy DeVos Really Believe in Public Schools?