January 18, 2017; Washington Post
The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee is scheduled to vote on Betsy DeVos’s nomination to be the next U.S. Secretary of Education on January 31st, a week later than initially planned. We will know then whether her less-than-stellar performance answering the senators’ questions mattered.
DeVos entered the committee hearing as a well-known and wealthy supporter of conservative causes and a passionate advocate for school choice and the redesign of public education along free market principles. In her opening remarks, she put forward the system she wishes to work toward.
I share President-elect Trump’s view that it’s time to shift the debate from what the system thinks is best for kids to what moms and dads want, expect and deserve. Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child, and they know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, religious. […] Too many parents are denied access to the full range of options…choices that many of us—here in this room—have exercised for our own children. […] I am a firm believer that parents should be empowered to choose the learning environment that’s best for their individual children.
Critics of DeVos cited several concerns outside the world of public education. She and her family have been major financial supporters of Republican candidates and conservative causes. The fact that several of the senators on the HELP Committee have been direct recipients of campaign donations from DeVos have left some questions about objectivity. “Senate Democrats have asked DeVos to explain why her political group failed to pay a $5.3 million fine for breaking campaign finance laws in Ohio.” Credo Action has submitted a petition with over 250,000 signatures that describes DeVos, based on what they see as her anti-LGBT views, as “an extreme right-wing bigot.”
But as senators took turns posing questions about education and the work of the federal department she is to lead, it became clear that while her overall political position might worry some, her lack of experience and knowledge of education should be of greater concern.
Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado focused his questions on educational outcomes in Michigan, DeVos’s home state. DeVos has led a decades-long effort to implement her educational platform in Michigan. These changes haven’t resulted in improved outcomes; in fact, Michigan has seen its ranking among the states on educational performance drop significantly. When asked about this, DeVos seemed unable to provide any answers that addressed what had gone wrong. According to the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss:
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[Bennet] cited a study that said charter schools across Michigan perform worse the traditional public schools do. But instead of answering his question, she told him she wanted to give him “context” about Detroit, to which he responded, “With respect, I’m not asking for a history of Detroit.” She also said, “I think there is a lot that has gone right” there, but she never answered his question.”
Accountability is a major theme among school reformers. Teachers, schools, and school systems should be held accountable for their students’ performances. When students don’t reach the bar set for them, teachers should be fired, schools closed, and whole districts taken over by outside managers. How should we determine what these expectations are, against which these judgments are made? Should we look at learning as matched against specific content expectations, like those spelled out by the Common Core curriculum, a measure known as proficiency? Or should we look at what a student knows at the beginning of the year and then measure how much more he or she knows when the school year ends, a measure known as growth, or progress? Clearly an important question.
However, when asked how she thought effectiveness should be gauged, Ms. DeVos seemed to not understand the difference between progress and proficiency, nor why this was an important distinction. This was of great concern to Senator Al Franken (D-MN), who “noted that the subject had been debated in the education community for years, and said, when she didn’t weigh in and just looked at him without much of an expression on her face, ‘It surprises me that you don’t know this issue.’”
While accountability is important, DeVos left senators unclear about whether she believes all schools that receive government funding should be held to a common standard, however it is defined. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) asked, “If confirmed, will you insist upon equal accountability in any K-12 school or educational program that receives taxpayer funding whether public, public charter, or private?” In response, DeVos would only commit to holding schools accountable—not equally accountable.
Federal law requires a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for children with disabilities. Just last week, the Supreme Court was asked to rule on a case that seeks to resolve questions about what that equality should look like. Under questioning from Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH), it became clear that DeVos thought this matter was up to each state to define. When Sen. Hassan asked DeVos if she was unaware that IDEA was a federal law, DeVos responded, “I may have confused it.”
The Department of Education is also responsible for overseeing the federal college loan program, which has been plagued of late by problems of fraud, particularly relating to for-profit programs. As with programs for students with disabilities, DeVos seemed unaware of the scope of the job she was nominated to undertake. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) had to remind DeVos that a group of rules, the gainful employment regulations, was already on the books. “All you have to do is enforce then,” Warren said.
In the end, when the Committee takes its vote, will it really matter that Betsy DeVos brings little to a job that can affect the lives of millions of children? Sadly, her wealth and political stances will probably be enough to overcome any lack of qualifications.—Martin Levine