Betsy DeVos, President Trump's pick for education secretary was confirmed by the Senate Tuesday afternoon, in what was an extremely close vote. All 48 Democratic senators voted against DeVos' confirmation, along with two Republican senators — Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Maine Sen. Susan Collins, according to The Guardian. That meant that DeVos' fate ultimately came down to Vice President Mike Pence, who cast the tie-breaking vote in her favor. Although that's still a win for DeVos, there's no question that she'll be starting out on shaky ground with much of the electorate. What will happen to public schools now that Betsy DeVos is confirmed? Parents across the country are very concerned — and it certainly sounds like they have reason to be.
As a billionaire businesswoman and education advocacy lobbyist with no public education experience whatsoever (not only has she never worked in a public school or held any positions relevant to public education, she has also never even attended public school, and chose not to send her children there either, according to NBC News), DeVos was a surprising and controversial choice for education secretary right off the bat. While supporters of DeVos, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and White House education advisor Rob Goad, have argued that DeVos will be an advocate for students and parents, and that she'll prioritize "supportive learning environments" for all children, according to USA Today, critics say that, at best, DeVos — a supporter of voucher systems and parents' right to choose their children's schools — doesn't know enough about public schools to properly advocate for the 90 percent of American kids who attend them. At worst? Many worry that DeVos' policies will undermine public education in favor or private and charter schools.
Thanks to DeVos' support of private education, and specifically school vouchers, which allow public funds to be used towards private education, many Americans are expecting that having DeVos as education secretary will mean a greater push in favor of for-profit education. As a result, in a January speech at the National Press Club, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten called DeVos "the most anti-public education nominee in the history of the department," according to The Huffington Post, and argued that her policies would be hugely detrimental. Weingarten said,
Betsy DeVos lacks the qualifications and experience to serve as secretary of education. Her drive to privatize education is demonstrably destructive to public schools and to the educational success of all of our children.
DeVos defended that claim during her Senate confirmation hearing last month, and vowed that she would actually be "a strong advocate for great public schools," according to The New York Times. But it isn't unreasonable to assume that, as education secretary, she will continue advancing the agenda she has spent years supporting. As the founder of the non-profit education advocacy group the Great Lakes Education Project, for example, DeVos championed school choice, according to The Los Angeles Times. And in 2010, she also founded the American Federation for Children, which has provided financial donations specifically to candidates who are supportive of school voucher programs.
The American Federation for Children also advised Trump on his own $20 million voucher plan, which, according to Trump's campaign website, would offer grants to states who "have private school choice, magnet schools and charter laws," and who actively promote them. Trump's plan would also make school choice a "national goal," with the emphasis on providing school vouchers to children living in poverty. With DeVos at his side, Trump also wants to see the program instituted in his first 100 days in office, according to Vox.
Since advocates of school choice argue that vouchers would give disadvantaged children a leg up by allowing them to attend private schools that — thanks to competition for student tuition — would theoretically provide a higher quality education, it makes sense that some politicians would view the program as a promising option. The problem, though, is that a number of states have already tried to roll out voucher programs — including DeVos' home state of Michigan, where she lobbied heavily for vouchers and even opened up her own charter school, according to CNN. And those states, (Michigan included) haven't exactly proven to be a big success.
According to The Atlantic, an expansive voucher program that passed in Nevada in 2015 was designed to provide parents with the opportunity to use federal funding towards private schools, allowing low-income families the opportunity to access better educational opportunities they wouldn't have otherwise been able to afford. But studies found that most voucher program applicants actually came from wealthy neighborhoods, including many who "already had access to the highest-performing public schools."
Then there's Indiana, a state where more than 32,000 children currently receive school vouchers, and where DeVos played an important role in lobbying for the program, according to The Washington Post. But similar to Nevada, the reality is that many of the vouchers are actually being used by wealthy families who already live in areas where the public schools are strong, and in addition, the majority of voucher recipients in the state haven't even ever attended public school in the first place. In other words, while the program was designed to give poor students the option to attend better schools, most of the money is actually being used by families whose kids were already attending private schools — except now the government is helping cover the cost.
Then, of course, there is Michigan. Michigan's charter school system is often considered to be the hallmark of DeVos' experience and education legacy, but it's been far from a home run. According to NBC News, Michigan has the highest rate of for-profit owned charter schools in the country, but despite receiving roughly $1 billion a year in federal funds, the schools themselves are largely unregulated. That might not even be so bad if the schools were doing well, but according to The Detroit Free Press, 38 percent of Michigan charter schools that were ranked during the 2012-13 school year fell below the 25th percentile, compared to 23 percent of public schools.
While there certainly are charter schools that are performing well, overall studies have found that charter schools' are actually comparable to public schools in terms of overall performance, according to Forbes. And unlike charter schools, public schools are required to admit all students, including those with Individualized Education Programs and behavioral issues, and are also not allowed to expel students who do not maintain good grades, like some for-profit schools have been shown to do.
Although it's not entirely clear exactly how DeVos will change education policy as education secretary, her views on private education certainly seem to be a potential threat to public education. And since protecting public education is a big priority to the parents, teachers, and other educators in the country, it's no surprise that there was such a big push to fight back against DeVos' confirmation.