On Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. Senate confirmed President Trump's pick for Secretary of Education after Vice President Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote. The night before the vote, Senate Democrats "held the floor" in protest of the confirmation of Trump's pick who many feel is unqualified. How will Betsy DeVos change education? She has a strong preference for private schools and virtually no actual experience in a classroom, or in any other respect, when it comes to public school education.
Concerns about DeVos' competence have been ongoing since her initial confirmation hearing several weeks ago, according to Quartz. While DeVos has, as a philanthropist, donated a great deal of money to the private schools in her home state of Michigan, she has never been a teacher. She does not have any formal or even informal experience in a classroom setting, as confirmed by Snopes. She did not go to a public school, nor were her children education in public schools, according to Quartz. She has sat on a few committees for "education reform" and has been a proponent of basically any form of education that isn't public school: private school and homeschooling, specifically.
Other than advocating for "school choice" — a term which here means states providing financial incentive for parents to send their children to private schools rather than public schools, and donating some of her billions of dollars to private schools — DeVos doesn't have experience as an educator, according to The Hill. Her college degree is in business, according to her website.
During her confirmation hearing, the extent of DeVos knowledge was revealed to be minimal at best. She did not appear to know what accountability standards were, according to The Atlantic. She also implied that teachers should be allowed to have guns in the classroom — which she hastily justified by saying that in some parts of the U.S., defense from grizzly bears could be a classroom problem, according to The Washington Post. The gun control question was posed by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut — the state where Sandy Hook Elementary School is located and the sight of a mass shooting that took place in 2012, killing 28 people — mostly children.
Senate Democrats (and in fact, a few Republicans) became so concerned about DeVos' lack of experience that they had a sit-in on the Senate floor the night before the confirmation vote was to take place. While DeVos may know a lot about the private schools that she supports, and where she and her children were educated, she does not appear to possess a broader knowledge of the public school system, which educates the vast majority of America's youth. This is concerning for a number of reasons, but initially because the private schools that DeVos has supported are for-profit and are exempt from the government standards of the public school system. Which is probably why she knows so little about the standards of the public school system.
A year-long investigation into the $1 billion DeVos' state of Michigan spent on a charter school initiative (in which DeVos has been heavily involved) found that these schools were not only not up to standard, but that the money tax-payers were spending in support of them was not being adequately tracked, according to The Detroit Free Press. In other words, the schools couldn't really tell taxpayers what their money was being used for. Beyond that, because these schools don't have to answer to government standards for education, they also didn't have a way to demonstrate that the kids at the schools were actually learning anything. Of the schools that did get an academic ranking, 38 percent of them fell below the 25th percentile. Only 23 percent of traditional public schools did.
DeVos' vision for the U.S. education system is no doubt largely in line with her personal beliefs and financial entanglements: she seems to believe that private or homeschooling are better choices than the public school system. For some students, perhaps this is true. But the American public school system still exists, and has been struggling for decades. Whether DeVos likes it or not is irrelevant now that she has been confirmed as the secretary of education. She cannot simply ignore the existence of an educational institution that serves more than 50 million students. She's also going to be in charge of the national budget for education, which is somewhere around $68 billion.
Generally speaking private schools don't receive federal funding and rely on tuition and donors (like DeVos). The public school system is desperately dependent on federal funds and in many parts of the U.S., teachers wind up paying out of their own pockets to make sure that they have what they need in their classrooms. If the public school systems' budget were to get any slimmer — say, if DeVos began allocating funds for private schooling or other "alternatives," — they would likely be unable to sustain themselves, according to reports from The Education Trust.
Many private schools in the U.S. are also religiously affiliated, meaning that they may not give equal weight to science education that is typically part and parcel in public school. In criticisms of DeVos' lack of understanding of curriculum, many have also pointed out that, if she is preferential to schools that leave out whole subjects (as may be the case in religious schools that do not, for example, teach evolution) that children will emerge undereducated to the detriment not only of any post-secondary plans, but awareness of greater global issues like climate change — an argument brought up in a STAT News op-ed by two members of the National Center for Science Education.
Furthermore, the idea that children should be educated at private schools may well have its merits: but the reality is, there are far more families that can't afford tuition than those that can. Even with "voucher" programs that DeVos has touted, steering the focus away from the public school system and putting the emphasis on private, for-profit institutions will certainly only widen the divide in access to education. No doubt there will be financial hurdles and to no small extent racial bias that will keep kids out of private schools. The public school system, which has so little to lose, will no doubt continue to struggle if funding is not maintained.
The fact that DeVos simply doesn't understand the ramifications of the decisions she'll be making is not any better than if she were to intentionally forsake the American public school system in favor of private schools. If anything, DeVos' confirmation, and the incompetence many fear will follow, stands to demonstrate just why a well-rounded education is so valuable.