Sizing Up Betsy DeVos

Imagine for a moment a collection of almost a dozen people.  Imagine them standing together in front of a public school in any town or city in America.  Now imagine that NONE of those eleven people ever attended a public school.  None of them. What are the chances?  The answer is that the chances are a sure thing if the collection of people were President-Elect Donald Trump and his children, and Secretary of Education Nominee Betsy DeVos and her children.  In fact, it is arguable that both Trump and DeVos have walked into public schools mostly for the purpose of making political statements.

devos-and-trump-2016

While it is striking that those eleven have never attended a public school, the better question – at least at this point – about DeVos being nominated to head the Department of Education is about her credentials and qualifications.  How does she measure up against other Secretaries of Education?  This is, in fact, a fairly straightforward task.  Since the Department of Education was created in 1979, it has had 10 Secretaries lead it.  As a kind of summary, six of these Secretaries were nominated by Republicans and four by Democrats.  And an equal number of Secretaries have been from each party. 

To make our comparison clear, this table offers a brief description of each of the ten Secretaries of Education to date.

secretaries-of-education

This is not a guide to policy or an examination of priorities of each Secretary.  Some were full supporters of the Department, while others worked under presidents who sought to end the Department.  Some sought more federal funding for schools, while others argued for a reduced federal role in education.  We will turn to an analysis of the education policy positions advocated for by DeVos at a later time, after her hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP).  Instead, this is a simple comparison of qualifications looking at both education and experience.

Education first.  Betsy DeVos holds a bachelor’s degree, with a major in business and political science from Calvin College in Michigan.  Calvin College is named for John Calvin, theologian of the Protestant Reformation, and was originally established to train ministers.  Its current enrollment is about 4,000 undergraduates.

If confirmed, DeVos will not be alone in holding only a bachelor’s degree.  Three others, Richard Riley, Margaret Spellings, and Arne Duncan hold this degree. Riley’s degree is from the University of South Carolina, Spellings’s is from the University of Houston, and Duncan’s is from Harvard.  Seven, however, hold either law degrees (Shirley Hufstedler and Lamar Alexander) or advanced degrees (Terrel Bell: Ph.D., Lauro Cavazos: Ph.D., Rod Paige: Dr. of Physical Education). William Bennett holds both a law degree and Ph.D., and John King, Jr. holds a law degree and an Ed.D.  DeVos, if confirmed, would, arguably be among the least educated of all Secretaries of Education.

Next, we consider experience.  DeVos can rightfully claim several accomplishments in her professional and political life.  The topmost seems to be that she is a former Chair of the Michigan Republican Party.  She held this position from 1996 to 2000.  She also heads the Windquest Group, a privately held corporation that manages her family’s substantial wealth, and the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization.  DeVos also served as Chair of the Alliance for School Choice, the affiliated American Federation for Children, and All Children Matter PAC, which politically promotes school vouchers.

Now consider the experience that former Secretaries of Education brought to the Department.  Founding Secretary Shirley Hufstedler previously served as a federal appeals court judge.  Terrell Bell had been a school district superintendent, the Utah Commissioner of Higher Education, and served as the U.S. Commissioner of Education, the highest federal education position prior to the establishment of the Department of Education.  William Bennett served as Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Lauro Cavazos was Dean of the Tufts Medical School and President of Texas Tech University.  Lamar Alexander had been Tennessee Governor and President of the University of Tennessee.  Ironically, it is now Senator Alexander who will chair the DeVos hearings before the Senate’s HELP Committee.

Richard Riley was the former Governor of South Carolina.  Rod Paige had served as Superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, currently the seventh largest in the United.States.  Margaret Spellings had served as George W. Bush’s Director of the Domestic Policy Council.  Arne Duncan had served as Superintendent of Chicago Public Schools and John King, Jr. as the New York State Education Commissioner.  In other words, when considering the experience of all ten previous Secretaries of Education, all had held significant positions of responsibility, all had a track record of leadership.   You can easily argue that some may have held different political positions or policy positions than the ones you personally advocate, but it is difficult to argue about qualifications to lead.  With DeVos, it is easily argued that her experience is only in advocating political positions, with almost no real policy implementation experience.

Following the DeVos hearing before the HELP Committee, now expected to be held on January 17, we will take a close look at what Betsy DeVos’ policy positions may mean for the education of American children and schools.

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