This afternoon, Tuesday, January 17, Betsy DeVos is scheduled to appear before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) for her confirmation hearing to become the eleventh U.S. Secretary of Education. The hearing will be chaired by Senator Lamar Alexander, Chair of HELP, and a former Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. On the Democratic side of the panel, Senator Patty Murray of Washington is Ranking Member of the Committee, though Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren is expected to take a major role in challenging DeVos.
The Committee is currently scheduled to vote on the DeVos nomination on January 24. That schedule may change as Democrats push to have the schedule delayed while the Office of Government Ethics attempts to sort out DeVos’ tangled financial interests and political contributions.
In an effort to provide a scorecard, or in this case perhaps, a crib sheet, there are some things to look for as the DeVos nomination is considered. Hearings are theoretically supposed to offer a chance for a full consideration of the background and policy positions of a nominee. However, all too often, they become carefully orchestrated dances, often involving ducking and skirting – ducking of issues and skirting of real positions.
Betsy DeVos has a long history of activism on education policy. That activism should be considered from three perspectives. First is religion, second is ultra-right political money, and third is privatizing education.
DEVOS AND RELIGION IN SCHOOLS
It is an understatement to say that Betsy DeVos is a deeply religious person. And while many forceful advocates for education have been deeply religious – from John Dewey to Martin Luther King, Jr. – Betsy DeVos takes a different, and dangerous perspective. She is an evangelical, conservative, fundamentalist Christian, and, as such, believes that state and religion should not be separate, but instead should be merged. She, in fact, would use schools to promote her religious beliefs. How do we know this? From her own words. At a 2001 gathering of Christian philanthropists, she pointed to education as a way to “advance God’s kingdom,” and has separately said that school choice will create “greater kingdom gain.”
She would accomplish this by a charter and voucher system that would provide vouchers to parents to help pay for private education at religious schools providing religious training. This voucher program segues directly to Trump’s announced plan to provide $20 billion for a federal voucher system. Her fundamentalist view also informs her views about the role of women in society, about gays and lesbians, and about a myriad of other issues. While DeVos may drastically deemphasize religion in her hearing, you may trust that she would not deemphasize it in her leadership at the Department of Education.
DEVOS AND POLITICAL MONEY
Betsy DeVos and her family are very well known for their political contributions to candidates and to initiative efforts. Many of those initiative efforts have involved education. Michigan, her home state, is a good example of her activism and how that activism has gone very wrong.
In the 1990s, the DeVos family led an effort to bring about “school choice” in their home state of Michigan. They spent lots of money to create a school system that allows for the uncontrolled growth in charter schools, both for-profit and non-profit, with the promise that the market will weed out non-performers. How has this worked out? How have Michigan schools performed? Not well. The Detroit Free Press found that public schools outperform charter schools in Michigan, and Michigan schools overall underperform when compared with schools in other states. The Michigan model, largely created with DeVos family political money, has not worked. You may not hear the real results of the Michigan model at the DeVos hearing, but you can check the results for yourself (see links below).
DEVOS AND PRIVATIZING EDUCATION
Betsy DeVos, like Donald Trump, seems, at her core, to be a foe of public education. As we have previous pointed out in this blog, neither EVER attended public school and neither EVER sent their children to public school. Both are intent on providing vouchers so that parents who can afford it can avoid public schools for their children. Vouchers not only siphon money away from public schools, they create more schools segregated by race, by class, and by religion. This is to the detriment of public education and by extension to democracy in America. A common American experience in vibrant public schools is essential to the advancement of society.
You can be almost certain that DeVos will have a prepared statement at her hearing that talks of the importance of public education, and that we must uplift our schools so that all may prosper. You can be just as certain that these lines were practiced at a session with political prompters hoping that DeVos will glide through her hearing unscathed. But it is political theater. DeVos is perhaps the one most dangerous of Trump’s nominees – a person who wants to tear at the fabric of the separation of church and state, a person who wants to privatize education, a person who will promote policies that will further segregate our schools.
In Betsy DeVos’s world, schools, public and private, have two purposes – proselytizing and profit.
Lisa Romero is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at California State University Sacramento.