Recently, the nation watched as Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, bumbled her way through a congressional hearing. Forget for now that her ethics review and financial disclosures remain incomplete, during a now infamous moment of the hearing, she suggested that guns in schools in one rural Wyoming community were likely intended to protect against grizzly bear attacks. In order to understand the true controversy surrounding her nomination, it is necessary to look at both her background and her context within the political and educational landscape.
Betsy DeVos is an heiress who married an heir, and their combined wealth stretches into the multi- billions. Fortune itself certainly does not disqualify someone from being nominee to the top education post, Senator Lamar Alexander, who served as Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush, is a multi-millionaire. In truth though, there is a vast difference between multi millions and multi billions. Again, this alone isn’t enough to cause a stir. Rather, it is how DeVos has allocated her money over the years that sends up red flags for many.
During her hearing, DeVos agreed it is “possible” that her family has donated $200 million to Republicans over the years. Many believe this has, in essence, bought her the nomination. Senator Bernie Sanders put the question to DeVos herself asking, “Do you think that if your family had not donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to the Republican Party that you would be sitting here today?” While DeVos said she believed it would be a possibility, many in Washington and beyond aren’t so sure.
In addition to her family’s generosity to the GOP, DeVos has been an ardent financial backer of organizations that seek to steer funding away from public schools and into the hands of private, for profit parochial schools. She has backed groups who wish to blur the separation of church and state, and is an outspoken advocate for voucher programs.
Privatizing school is a contentious issue for a number a reasons. By stripping away the public aspect and turning schools over to the free market, transparency on everything from allocation of funds to what goes on in the classroom diminishes. School metrics become a high stakes game and standardized testing takes precedent over less quantifiable disciplines like the arts. Teachers and administrators find themselves forced to “teach to the test” in order to maintain scores that garner continued funding.
In Atlanta in 2015, 11 teachers were convicted on racketeering charges after altering test answer sheets in order to raise their school testing average. While this may be an extreme case, privatizing schools creates a host of problems.
Access to “good schools” becomes an issue under privatization. Voucher programs threaten to disadvantage low income communities where parents are less likely to be able to drive their children to far-away, higher quality schools.
More potential trouble lies with the DeVos family’s personal financial stakes tying them to a student loan collections agency. The question remains unresolved DeVos’s finances have not yet been disclosed. To have an education secretary tasked with regulating the loan industry who herself stands to gain financially from this very enterprise is a clear conflict of interest.
There is the fact that DeVos has neither attended nor taught in a public school or university. Nor have any of her children. Let that sink in a moment. The probable leader of public schools across the entire nation has never attended one, nor has she worked in one. While this alone does not make her solely unqualified for the job, this coupled with her seeming inability to answer even the most basic questions about educational practice and theory during her congressional hearing make her an alarming choice. Senator Al Franken tweeted after the hearings that, “her lack of basic knowledge astounded me.”
DeVos routinely dodged questions and offered wide off the mark responses including a claim that student loan debt had soared 980% under President Obama. Senator Franken correctly disputed her claim. While there has been an increase in loan debt, DeVos’s wildly inflated answer was just one in a stream of rhetoric that exposed her lack of qualification for the position of Secretary of Education.