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Don’t Weep for Public Education Just Yet!

Betsy DeVos’ nomination and confirmation as the Trump administration’s Secretary of Education have been a tumultuous slice of history, though the outrage may be premature.

Who is Betsy DeVos?

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was nominated to her post by then President-elect Donald Trump on November 23, 2016, and later confirmed by the U.S. Senate on February 7, 2017, following fiery hearings and fierce debate on Capitol Hill and in the public domain. In fact, her confirmation came only after Vice President Mike Pence voted in her favor to break the Senate’s 50-50 tie. Prior to her role in President Trump’s cabinet, DeVos and her family were known to the educational and political communities as billionaire donors lobbying in favor of school choice through charter schools and voucher programs at the state and national levels. Though they have since found common ground, DeVos initially voiced opposition to President Trump early in the campaign as her politics have aligned more strongly with the conservative Republican establishment for decades.

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What is Betsy DeVos’ history with education?

Despite her new position as the face of national public education, DeVos has never attended public school nor sent her children to public schools, suggesting she has little knowledge of current practices in public school administration. She also lacks proficiency in subjects critical for someone with her responsibilities, which is best exemplified by her inability to explain the subtle, yet important differences between growth and proficiency during her confirmation hearing that was described as “kind of like an Olympic skier not knowing the difference between slalom and downhill racing.” Regardless, her strong support of school choice and voucher programs, combined with President Trump’s proposed $20B national voucher program, suggests a strong shift is coming in the field of education.

What has been the response to Betsy DeVos?

Support of DeVos has largely fallen along party lines, though two Republican senators voted against DeVos’ confirmation, triggering the tie-breaker by Vice-President Pence. Supporters of DeVos argue that her 20+ years of experience rallying for school choice will be invaluable in instituting voucher programs aimed at providing equal opportunities for poor youth. Providing more individuals with school choice opportunities through voucher programs is also expected to promote competition in the market for teachers, encouraging better benefits for better work and, as a result, higher quality education.

Opponents of Betsy DeVos’ nomination argue that her complete lack of experience in public education will impede her ability to create effective policies for public schools. They also argue that voucher programs, which she has championed for decades, have numerous disadvantages and have not worked well in the past. Another significant concern is that DeVos’ policies will increase the number of private religious schools receiving public voucher money, further blurring the separation between church and state. These proponents range from Democrats and public school educators to parents and teens, all of whom have led protests around the nation to block DeVos’ confirmation. DeVos was even physically blocked from entering a public school in Washington D.C. in early February after she was sworn in.

What’s the reality?

Shortly after her nomination, DeVos was labeled the “most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward since President Carter created a Cabinet-level Department of Education” by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. These strong sentiments may or may not be accurate, but rest assured, one woman alone cannot bring down the entire educational system. At best, she will have little impact by giving the majority of decisions and rights regarding education back to the States; at worst, she will strip away some civil liberties previously afforded to certain populations.

In reality, those civil liberties were largely regarded as an overreach by the Obama administration’s Department of Education (DoE), which pushed the DoE’s authority to the limit. Republicans in Congress were overwhelmingly upset by these new guidances on transgender bathroom rights in schools and the handling of sexual violence reports, while civil rights advocates lauded the White House’s bold moves. DeVos could remove or alter those guidances with a few pen strokes, though it is unknown how important they are to her agenda.

Another outcome just as likely is one in which DeVos works with Republicans in Congress to return educational rights and responsibilities back to the States and minimize the role of the federal government in education (compared to Bush-era involvement). This process was initiated in 2015 with bipartisan passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which eases some reporting and accountability requirements. Significantly reducing government oversight of education is consistent with her past lobbying efforts against regulations for charter schools in Michigan.

Regardless of the outcome, education is mandated in the Constitution as a State matter, and States still have significant power over curriculum and resourcing. This is supported by the fact that only 8% of the total funding for primary and secondary schools comes from federal funds, and this includes funding from the DoE, Department of Health and Human Services, and Department of Agriculture. Should states not agree with the policies put forth by President Trump’s DoE, punishment through loss of funding could possibly be remedied through small investments by local taxpayers or private institutions.

The Trump DoE led by DeVos will surely have some impact on national public education, especially thanks to its key roles in setting academic standards and overseeing educational research. In addition, the $20B voucher program favored by President Trump and DeVos would propel a huge shift in the field, though finding the money to pay for this program out of the already-tight DoE budget could stop it short in its tracks. It’s also worth noting that DeVos will be largely dependent upon Congress to enact any meaningful change in public education, further limiting her power. Overall, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may not be the ideal face of public education for the nation, yet it is unlikely she will have a highly negative impact on it.

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