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Growing up, I was a fan of the comic strip Spy vs. Spy, a staple in Mad Magazine. The strip featured two cold-war era spies, one dressed in white and the other in black, who sought to outwit one another. Usually one spy would best the other, but occasionally their plans would go awry, and both would be blown up.
That’s fine for a comic strip in a humor magazine, but lately it’s been hitting closer to home here in the real world, as the chaotic Trump administration issues incendiary executive orders and then accuses the incredulous senators who oppose them of wanting to start World War III.
It’s even a legitimate fear about the U.S. public education system—one that the past 24 hours has done little to quell, particularly since President Trump’s Education Secretary choice, billionaire Betsy DeVos, was approved 12-11 Tuesday by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP).
A day earlier, HELP released written responses from DeVos to questions posed to her by committee members. Her oral confirmation testimony earlier this month was a cringe-worthy performance, featuring guns vs. grizzlies and her refusal to commit to the same accountability standards for charter and private schools as are in place for traditional public schools that receive taxpayer funds.
DeVos’ remarks at the hearing fueled an unusually fierce opposition throughout the country, stemming from her track record of supporting initiatives at odds with many citizens’ conceptions of public education and civil rights.
The written testimony was an opportunity to rehabilitate herself in the eyes of the committee, especially Democratic senators rightly skeptical of her qualifications.
Her responses to 137 questions from ranking Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington spanned 62 pages. But I am not reassured.
Although there were more bright spots in the relatively polished written testimony than in her awkward oral testimony, DeVos remained evasive, and did little to address fears that she is a thoughtless proponent of the privatization of American education.
If her actions in office parallel her responses to the Senate HELP Committee, we’re in for a rocky four years.
Reading Senator Murray’s questions and nominee DeVos’ answers, I was reminded of Spy vs. Spy. In this case, though, it’s Staffer vs. Staffer.
During the live theater of the confirmation hearing, Senators had the benefit of their staffers in preparing questions, but DeVos was all alone, leading to her infamous “guns vs. grizzlies” remarks and a few others that I’m sure she’d like to forget.
But in responding to written questions, both sides had the benefit of staffers. Senator Murray’s staffers sought to pin down DeVos on a range of policy issues, and set a few traps for her.
In turn, nominee DeVos’ staffers wrote answers that allowed her to be maddeningly vague on whether she would continue to support Obama-era education policies, and also on what she might do differently.
It turns out that it’s just as easy for Betsy DeVos to write “If I am confirmed, I look forward to working with you” as it is for her to say it.
As I see it, here’s the good, the evasive, and the very, very bad.
The good: Some of DeVos’ responses reflected good rhetoric and, possibly, good policy. The good rhetoric largely consisted of her commitment to safe and supportive learning environments for all children, regardless of their age or social characteristics—effective perhaps because she borrowed some of it from other sources.
“Simply put, let’s share best practices which encourage students to be kind, civil, and treat everyone with dignity and respect,” she wrote, followed shortly thereafter by “I believe prejudice and intolerance are unacceptable and un-American.”
As for policy, Senator Murray asked a lot of questions about civil rights and the protection of racial and ethnic minority students. DeVos agreed that the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has a role in helping to ensure that the (yet-unfulfilled) mandate of Brown vs. Board of Education be achieved, and said that if confirmed, she would support OCR in enforcing the various titles of the Civil Rights Act, including investigating and responding to evidence alleging disparate impacts on students.
DeVos also pledged to increase representation of women and minorities pursuing STEM careers and called for the use of “reliable data, strong research and rigorous evaluations” as a basis for programmatic decision-making. And she indicated that she would recommend that Trump continue a White House Initiative on HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities).
Finally, in the context of questions about higher education, she responded, “Fraud should never be tolerated. Period. Bad actors clearly exist—in both public and nonpublic institutions—and when we find them, we should act decisively to protect students and enforce existing laws.”
(Murray’s staffers had baited DeVos’ with a question about students defrauded by Trump University who received some money back in a $25 million settlement, prompting DeVos’ staffers to note that “Trump University was not a recipient of federal student aid, nor an accredited college or university, and therefore would not fall under my jurisdiction as Secretary of Education.”)
The evasive: Some amount of deflection in responding to pointed questions is inevitable. In some cases, DeVos may not have figured out her position yet on various questions, some of which were overly-specific, and a bit unfair. I didn’t find it unreasonable for her to decline to commit to specific current regulations under ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) that she might seek to modify or change.
The most evasive language, in my view, emerged in response to questions about school and college accountability. DeVos was reluctant to commit to strong federal efforts to ensure that all schools will be held accountable. Asked about financial risks posed by charter schools with relationships to Charter Management Organizations, many of which are for-profit, she dodged the issue, responding merely that she would work to “hold schools accountable for educating students.”
And after ducking Senator Tim Kaine’s (D-Virginia) question about equal accountability for all schools receiving federal funds four times in person, she’s said nothing to clarify her position.
DeVos was also evasive in answering questions about applicants to the charter school her husband founded.
We know that urban charter schools enroll a lower percentage of students with disabilities than nearby traditional public schools, and frequently have a lower percentage of English Language Learners as well. Across the nation, charter schools do not serve all children, contrary to her remarks.
DeVos was least forthright on her family’s investments and politicking.
She never answered a question of whether she had personally or through any foundation, PAC or other entity she’s affiliated with ever donated to the Family Research Council, which has been designated a hate-group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“As I said at my hearing, I fully embrace equality and believe in the innate value of every single human being,” she said.
Is that a “Yes”? It’s certainly not a “No.”
When Senator Murray asked, “Have you or anyone in your family ever invested in, owned, served as a high-level executive or board member for, or in any other way been financially involved with a for-profit college?,” DeVos responded that she had never served as a high-level executive or board member of any for-profit college.”
If a question such as this is appropriate for a Cabinet secretary nominee—as Senator Murray argued strongly today—I’d deem that answer non-responsive.
What is DeVos hiding?
The really, really bad. Most disturbing was DeVos’ blind support for virtual charter schools, which have a horrible track record. Senator Murray’s staffers noted recent research on the abysmal academic performance of virtual charter schools, and DeVos flatly denied the evidence.
“High quality virtual charter schools provide valuable options to families, particularly those who live in rural areas where brick-and-mortar schools might not have the capacity to provide the range of courses or other educational experiences for students,” she wrote.
She then pointed to seven virtual academies with four-year cohort graduation rates of 90% or above: Idaho Virtual Academy (90%); Nevada Virtual Academy (100%); Ohio Virtual Academy (92%); Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy (91%); Texas Virtual Academy (96%); Utah Virtual Academy (96%); and Wisconsin Virtual Academy (96%).
These numbers seemed awfully high to me, especially in a sector where high-quality research suggests that the schools on average are just awful. Because I have trust issues, I went to some state education department websites to see what they had to say about these high schools. The disparity between DeVos’ claims and the state department websites is striking.
The Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy High School was given a D by the state of Oklahoma on its A-to-F Report Card for 2015-16, based partly on its 40% cohort graduation rate.
The Ohio Virtual Academy received an F for its Graduation Rate component due to a 53% rate of graduation in four years.
I understand that virtual charter schools may have a highly mobile population of students, but in most graduation accounting schemes, students discharged to other schools will be removed from the denominator of the graduation rate, and not count against the school.
The graduation rates for the schools that DeVos named in her written testimony are far below what is acceptable, and not inconsistent with claims about the thoroughly rotten academic performance of virtual charter schools in general.
Why did DeVos identify these schools exemplary? I’ve no idea … but there is one disturbing detail. They are all affiliated with K12.com, a for-profit charter management organization.
“We believe that profitability yields invention, responsiveness, and responsibility,” proclaims the outfit’s website.
And maybe it does. Certainly Betsy DeVos is a believer. She purchased shares of the company in 2002 and 2003, she said in her remarks, but sold them in 2008.
If this blithe repurposing of the false talking points of a low-performing for-profit charter management organization in which she had personally invested is typical of how she will behave in office, I’m disheartened.
Next up, the nomination moves to the full Senate, which is expected to confirm the appointment, and only needs a majority vote, in a Senate with 52 Republicans.
So, I guess that means, welcome Madame Secretary. What, me worry?
Aaron Pallas is professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.