American Schools are in Trouble

Betsy Devos Confirmation will be Detrimental to Public Schools


Photo taken from Getty Images. Photo by Chip Somodevilla.

Betsy Devos answers questions during senate confirmation hearing.

Beau Prince, Staff Writer

The new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is not qualified enough, knowledgeable enough, or empathetic enough to hold the position of Secretary of Education, nor does she advocate for policies that will be in the best interest of the students of the United States.

On Tuesday, Donald Trump’s secretary of education nominee Betsy DeVos was confirmed by the Senate in a 51-50 vote, with the tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Mike Pence. DeVos will now assume her position as the Secretary of Education.

But what does that really mean in the broad scope of our country?

To begin generally, the Secretary of Education is the chief operating officer of the Department of Education. That is, he or she makes the executive decisions for the department, which oversees all of the public schools from pre-k to graduate school. This means that the Secretary of Education is largely responsible for administering federal funding to public schools, collecting educational data, enforcing federal law in schools, and, in recent decades, setting standards.

If we acknowledge that education is possibly the most important tool in the free world, the gravity of the post of United States Secretary of Education becomes clear. This is not a job that is to be taken lightly, and it is not a job that anyone can do.

Consider the past Secretaries of Education. The list is not abundantly long, but it is full of former attorney generals, university presidents, career politicians, and educators. For reference, among the least experienced Secretaries of Education was the executive director of the National Endowment of the Humanities prior to his appointment as Secretary of Education.

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American public education will likely suffer under DeVos as SecEd.

That brings us to DeVos. DeVos has never been a principal, a dean, a school president, a superintendent, a teacher, or even a secretary. Nor has she ever been a politician or civil servant. Instead, DeVos is a very wealthy advocate for school choice programs. As she has personally admitted, much of her influence comes from the millions of dollars that she has given to various school choice groups. Despite her expansive pocketbooks, DeVos is by no means an educational professional; for all intents and purposes, she is little more than an educational enthusiast. Her qualifications for the position of Secretary of Education are, at best, minimal.

To me, DeVos’ lack of experience is rather concerning. In her hearing before the senate, DeVos displayed ignorance of federal laws and practices, and she seldom responded to challenging questions with a substantial answer. There should be no question to whether or not the Secretary of Education knows the laws that he or she is required to enforce. If DeVos does not know federal law, what abundance of other more menial things is she entirely ignorant of?

Of course, some may praise her outsider status to the Department of Education. It may be argued that someone who is on the receiving end of the policies instituted by the Department of Education (the average citizen, for example) may be able to empathize with fellow citizens and subsequently institute policies that help the average American. DeVos is not that person.

According to her statements in her senate hearing, DeVos has never attended a public school, sent her children to public school, taken out a student loan, or applied for a Pell Grant. Thus, she has no empathy for the average citizen who, like over 90 percent of students, has made use of the educational services provided by federal and state governments.

Considering her own personal educational record and that DeVos has called public education a “dead end,” I believe it is reasonable to say that DeVos is not particularly fond of public education. With that in mind, it raises the question: What might someone who effectively advocates against public education do as the leader of our public education system?

Looking at DeVos’ past statements, donations, and actions, we can glean from them a general idea. A somewhat radical idea would be the privatization of the United States education system. This would obviously be catastrophic for the state of education in the U.S., so I will assume that DeVos will not go so far as complete privatization. It appears likely, though, that DeVos will take steps in that direction.

Most of DeVos’ experience in the mere idea of education comes from her long-time advocacy for voucher programs and charter schools. Both vouchers and charter schools are, to DeVos, a means to inject competition into the education system, and neither are in the best interest of the American public student.

DeVos’ first advocating passion, school vouchers are essentially scholarships given by the government to a qualifying student for the intention of attending private school. The federal government does not have a voucher program, but 13 states and the District of Columbia institute one. In short, a voucher is money that goes from the government to private schools. Scholarships in themselves don’t sound like an issue, but consider where that scholarship money could be going.

Instead of the government spending money on private schools, as a voucher system effectively does, it would likely be in the better interest of students if that money was invested in public school systems. It is clear that schools that receive less funding perform worse than schools that receive more funding. Given that over 90 percent of students make use of public schools, would it not be in the best interest of the entire student population of the United States to give schools as much funding as possible? Even more worrying, DeVos appears to be in support of voucher programs at least in part due to her own religious convictions. In a 2001 speech, DeVos said that her advocacy for voucher programs was part of an effort to “advance God’s Kingdom.” For religious advocates, this would probably be welcome, but it also would be blatantly unconstitutional, violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Similarly, DeVos’ advocacy of charter schools, if applied to the position of Secretary of Education, would be detrimental to the United States public school system. Charter schools are essentially public schools that are established by private institutions, namely corporations. Because they are public institutions, they receive federal and state funding and are not allowed to charge tuition. However, unlike traditional public schools, they are allowed greater flexibility in determining their curriculum and not subject to the same regulations from state and federal agencies.

Charter advocates frequently tout that charter schools are held to higher standards than traditional public schools, but according to a Department of Education study, charter schools are less likely to meet state performance standards than traditional schools, and sanctions are very rarely imposed on failing schools. Like traditional public schools, charter schools require government funding to function. That means that the amount of funding given to public schools (again, in which the vast majority of students are enrolled) is decreased with the proliferation of charter schools. Once again, as has been shown abundantly well, the less funding a school receives, the lower it performs.

DeVos has no relevant experience, no qualifications, and her advocacy for charter schools and voucher programs will hurt the public school system. The worse our schools do, the worse our students do, and the success of our students determines the success of our country. Why, then, do we have reason to be optimistic about Devos’ impact on the United States?

Further Reading:

Lemon v. Kurtzman Case Summary

Journalist Resource Data Analysis

The Effect of Budget Referenda on Student Performance

“A sobering look at what Betsy DeVos did to education in Michigan — and what she might do as secretary of education”

“Betsy DeVos’ Graduation Rate Mistake”

“Evaluation of the Public Charter Schools Program”