We Don’t Need No Stinking Plan: Unpacking The Betsy Devos Confirmation Hearing

I had big plans for a long post about Betsy Devos. I was going to watch the full confirmation hearing, take notes all the way through, and then write up a thorough analysis. That’s not happening.

I got about half way through the hearing before I shut it off in frustration so I’m going with what I have. And what I have is a combination of shock and anger. Shock that Devos was so unable (or unwilling) to articulate an actual position on schooling and anger that someone so unfit for this cabinet position was even shortlisted, let alone nominated. The New York Times  drew a similar conclusion to this saying: “in questioning by senators, [Devos] seemed either unaware or unsupportive of the longstanding policies and functions of the department she is in line to lead, from special education rules to the policing of for-profit universities” I am not impressed.

Note: As my personal focus is PreK-12 education and I’m sticking to that. You can read about the litany of problems with Devos’ answers regarding higher education at the Washington Post if you’d like.

Let the States Figure it Out
I was expecting to hear Devos defend charter schools and vouchers. That is, after all, her background and there was some of that, though we heard more about it from Senator Alexander’s introduction than from Devos herself.

Instead of impassioned or reasoned defense of alternatives to traditional public schools, I heard an abdication of federal responsibility for ensuring high quality education. Devos offered weak responses across the board with vague mentions of local control, and creating more opportunities for choice. She didn’t defend any particular position other than states and localities should decide things, which she didn’t actually defend. She just kept repeating that local control is the answer be it for guns in schools, universal preschools, or academic standards. At each turn Devos declined to offer a position saying that those calls are best left to localities.

When giving her opening statement, Devos commented that: “if a school is troubled or unsafe or not a good fit for a child … we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high quality alternative,” and she left it there. Your school isn’t doing well? Go to another one. Absolutely zero discussion about how to support or improve the existing school so that the existing public school can become the first choice for parents.

Devos claimed parents should be able to choose their children’s schools. This seems reasonable at the individual level, and wealthy parents absolutely do this including very intentional decisions about where to purchase a house. But we have to consider scale. Over 50 million students attend U.S. public schools. If Devos actually wants to establish a system in which every family can take advantage of the opportunities that wealthy families take for their children (which she claimed during the hearing) someone would need to undertake an unprecedented level of school construction. If competition is the answer we need to flood the market with other choices that are as accessible geographically as existing public schools. Devos did not argue for massive school construction. Instead she tossed responsibility back to local control.

If choice requires creating alternatives Devos’ non-answer of Senator Murray’s question about privatization becomes critically important. Devos did not clearly reject private sources, instead saying that she is: “hopeful that we can work together to find common ground.” That’s not an answer to a question where Senator Murray wanted to know if Devos could commit to: “not privatize or cut a single penny.”

Devos couldn’t even commit to support for universal pre-kindergarten and she again pushed responsibility to local governments. That could have been an easy one.

We currently have zero evidence that President Trump is planning to grow the Department of Education. In President Trump’s massive infrastructure plans schools are noticeably absent. To my knowledge building schools has never been on the Republican Party’s national platform. Without growing the Department, the high quality alternatives Devos refers to will have to come from outside the federal government and I don’t see state or local governments covering this cost. Higher income communities are already developing their public schools and poverty impacted communities simply do not have the tax base or funds on hand to create more schools. So the funds have to come from outside those communities. This leaves only private sources be they for-profit or not-for-profit.

Either way the math is the same: Devos is positioning for reduced federal oversight of education with a rise in privately funded options at the local level. If everything is for local control, then the Department of Education (and the Secretary of Education) needs no plan for improving existing schools.

Our Students and our Country Need Better
The stakes for our 50 million children in schools are too high for this kind of nonsense. The Secretary of Education should be thought of as the highest teacher in the land the same way we think about the Surgeon General and the Attorney General acting as the first doctor and first lawyer. To even nominate Devos, who has zero educational experience beyond mentoring students, and arguing for school choice, is an insult to our entire education system. This insult was confirmed by Senator Lieberman’s statement that the fact that she doesn’t come from “the education establishment,” is “one of the most important qualifications [she] can have.”

We would never put someone without legal experience in the Attorney General seat. We would never put someone without medical experience in the Surgeon General seat. The fact that Devos is even nominated is a glaring example of how little respect the republican party has for our education system.

With education we create our future and a key feature (and challenge) of public schools is that they accept all students. The future that Devos, and by extension the Trump administration, is proposing is a future of increasing inequality.  A future of struggling public schools left to wither an die when we could offer them support instead. A future where the most challenging students get kicked out of the “high quality alternatives” and back to those struggling public schools thus ensuring continued inequality.

I simply can’t imagine putting a secretary of education in place who has no plans for actually improving the schools attended by the overwhelming majority of our country’s children. Yet that is what we have to look forward to. If Devos is confirmed and her plans move forward with Congress’ blessing, local communities will need to commit incredible sums to ensure the continued viability of their public schools. I can’t see the federal government providing much help for the next few years.

 

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