If nothing else, the historic confirmation of billionaire Betsy DeVos as President Donald Trump’s education secretary ushers in a new champion for public education: the public.
Education, as it often does, took a back seat during the heated and closely contested election campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The 50-50 Senate confirmation vote – broken only by Vice President Mike Pence’s unprecedented tie-breaker – means the pro-school-choice DeVos, who attended private schools and sent her children to them – will take the helm. But in the process, public education has gained much- needed attention after Democratic senators held a marathon all-night session ahead of the vote, angry crowds protested outside their politicians’ offices back home, and late-night comedians even took notice of the uproar.
The enormous scrutiny and publicity surrounding the vote have reminded us that education is an issue nearly everyone cares about, although it’s too often overlooked in the coverage of horse-race politics and click-bait stories or obscured by inaccessible acronyms and jargon. Even ardent opponents to DeVos found some reasons to feel heartened.
“DeVos’ confirmation battle has a major silver lining: The public in public education has never been more visible or more vocal, and it is not going back in the shadows,” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said shortly after the vote. “This same public—from rural towns to urban centers, from liberals to conservatives—will now serve as a check and balance.”
After the vote, Senator Patty Murray of Washington told her Senate colleagues that the long nights, endless dramatic speeches, tweets and public statements had not been wasted. The vote followed opposition from teacher organizations, civil rights groups, women’s rights activists, students, centrist think tanks, reform leaders, evangelical Christians, special education advocates. Even some choice proponents joined the protests.
“It’s made an impact here and made a difference,” Murray said. “And I think it’s woken each of us up in this country to what we value and what we want.”
During her contentious hearing, DeVos made clear her preference for an education system that favors choice – including virtual charter schools with dismal track records. The Obama administration also invested federal dollars in charter schools, but the $20 billion level Trump has proposed for promoting school choice is unprecedented.
Much of that money would go toward the private sector, and DeVos has also been challenged repeatedly for supporting vouchers that allow parents to use government dollars to pay for private, for-profit and religious schools, a cornerstone of Trump’s stated plan. Results for voucher programs have been questionable, according to several studies.
Two Republican senators from large rural states where school choice is logistically impossible (Maine and Alaska) crossed party lines and voted against DeVos, and both said they did so due to enormous pressure from constituents.
Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski voted against confirmation, even though the DeVos family donated more than $43,000 to her campaign. Murkowski cited DeVos’ lack of experience and said DeVos had “chosen to focus exclusively on alternatives to our public school system” that are not available in Alaska.
Democrats failed to flip additional Republican senators, despite boisterous demonstrations and sufficient calls to the Capital switchboard to practically shut down Senators’ voice mail systems.
Supporters, including Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), called the lack of knowledge DeVos was criticized for displaying during the hearing a positive; he was one of the few who spoke up for her on the Senate floor, when he said Trump had chosen wisely.
“Not because he chose another education bureaucrat who knows all the acronyms and knows the arcana known to people who have been brought up within that establishment,” Cornyn said.
At The Hechinger Report, we are no fans of the obscure language educators use to talk about a public good, one we consider enormously important to our history and future. We remain committed to reporting that shines a spotlight on innovation and inequality in education, from policies and programs that work to those that fail children, parents and taxpayers.
Our mission is to show the public how education can be improved and why it matters. As we say often, if no one is talking about the problems in education, no one is going to bother trying to fix them.
This could be a moment for change. Trump’s policies, if enacted, could make big waves, and so could the public’s reactions to them, if people keep up the pressure and continue to focus media attention on what’s happening in schools and on campuses. Let’s keep talking – and listening. And let’s hope that DeVos listens as well, because despite the close vote, the public has clearly spoken. She should visit classrooms and campuses and consult research and data.
We will keep an open mind about DeVos in the months to come, and report fairly and honestly on what she says and does – and what it means for the millions who rely on public education as a public good and a ladder to success and equality. We’ll examine whether new policy ideas are likely to protect the most vulnerable learners in the public school system – low-income students, those with disabilities and the country’s youngest learners.
John B. King, the former U.S. education Secretary and incoming president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group, has expressed a range of concerns about DeVos and her commitment to public education, but said he’s also keeping an open mind.
“As the former Secretary of Education, I sincerely hope that Ms. DeVos will work hard to prove these concerns wrong,” he said in a statement, “and will lead the Department in a manner that protects fundamental civil rights and promotes opportunity and achievement for all students.”