By tonight, we will know whether Betsy DeVos will be confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education. But it has become clear that there is significant opposition to her possible tenure — and she has proven that she is undeserving of the job.
As you already know, the Amway heiress’ effort to win confirmation hit snags within the past week. First came the rather narrow 12-to-11 approval last Tuesday by the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee after a rancorous executive session that featured Ranking Democrat Patty Murray sparring with the committee’s chairman, Lamar Alexander, over his casting a vote for the nominee on behalf of colleague Orrin Hatch (who wasn’t present at the time).
Then last Wednesday, two Republicans on the committee, Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, announced that they would vote against DeVos’ confirmation, effectively creating a 50-50 tie in the full Senate and casting doubt about her chances of winning. As you would expect, movement conservatives such as the editors at National Review accused both of doing the bidding of the National Education Association, which, naturally, opposes DeVos’ confirmation.
While conservative reformers such as Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute worked to spin the news as a sign that DeVos would gain confirmation (a funny thing given that they have been wrong about so much else when it comes to congressional votes), news that other Republicans, including Nevada’s Dean Heller, were still undecided and leaning towards voting her down cast new doubts on her chances.
Then on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that a vote on DeVos’ confirmation set for today was being delayed until Tuesday. The stated reason was to give Republicans a chance to spend time with donors at an out-of-the-Beltway event. Left unsaid: That other Republicans, including those in states with influential American Indian tribal populations opposed to DeVos such as Oklahoma and Alaska, are likely under pressure from those tribes to vote her down. That there are plenty of Senate Republicans, more-concerned about beating back Democrat efforts to stop the confirmations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and U.S. Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch, willing to give opponents an easy victory by letting DeVos lose her bid is also a factor.
Meanwhile DeVos has taken more hits, many of them self-inflicted. Just as the Senate education committee voted on her confirmation last Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that several passages from DeVos’ response to questions posed by Murray were cribbed from various sources, including an Obama Administration report. For someone being put at the helm of overseeing American public education, the allegations of plagiarism against her (and, given reality, staffers who wrote the response for her) angered even more people than necessary. At the same time, DeVos’ response to Murray that she would not require linking data on charter school performance to their operators alarmed reformers who are looking to improve the quality of student learning.
The chance of DeVos being confirmed today is still rather high. After all, even with a tie vote, all the Republicans and President Donald Trump need for DeVos’ victory is for Vice President (and President of the Senate) Mike Pence to show up and cast a vote. Which, of course, he will. There’s also the fact that DeVos’ nomination is scheduled before that of Sessions, giving the latter the chance to vote for her. But the fact that Senate Republicans waited so long to vote on her confirmation is one sign that there is little unity within the caucus behind her tenure.
As your editor expected back in December, DeVos’ nomination has divided the school reform movement as bitterly as every other discussion of late.
Falling in line with their ideological fellow-travelers, conservative reformers have largely lined up behind DeVos, arguing that any opposition to her has been driven by the smearing of her record and her character as well as what Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute calls a lack of civility. Given that many conservative reformers are recipients of donations from DeVos and her family’s foundations, this is to be expected.
Centrist Democrats and civil rights-oriented reformers, on the other hand, have raised concerns about DeVos’ competence and willingness to aggressive advance strong accountability. They have found themselves allied with opponents of school choice such as Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren in opposing DeVos’ confirmation. The latest announcement came last Thursday when former Secretary of Education John King announced in his new role as president of the Education Trust that he and the organization actively oppose DeVos’ confirmation.
Meanwhile those outside of school reform have debated over DeVos — and their arguments have painted either side in a good light.
Allies of DeVos have argued that she would be a breathe of fresh air because she is an “outsider”. Yet in doing so, they fail to admit that her long (and largely beneficial) advocacy for advancing the expansion of public charter schools and other forms of choice, along with her role as a leading force in transforming public education in her home state of Michigan, makes her as much of an insider as AFT President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten. More-importantly, despite DeVos’ poor performance last month before the Senate education panel, they continue to dismiss legitimate criticisms of DeVos’ competence as being mere politicking.
On the other side, traditionalist arguments that DeVos will destroy American public education is absolutely silly. They are still stuck in the outdated notion that public education is about traditional districts and other bureaucracies, and refuse to embrace the concept of providing all children — especially those black and brown — with high-quality opportunities to learn regardless of the type of provider. They lambast DeVos for not sending her kids to traditional public schools while conveniently ignoring the fact that Former President Barack Obama himself didn’t do so either.
At the end of the day, the grandstanding of many DeVos’ allies and critics don’t matter. What does matter is if there are legitimate reasons to not confirm DeVos. From where your editor sits, there are more than plenty.
As I have noted back in November and December, DeVos would be taking charge of a federal agency that is charged with protecting the civil rights of children black and brown at a time in which the administration’s key leaders (including Trump and his consigliere, Steve Bannon), have demonstrated records of denigrating them and their families. No matter her assurances to the contrary, there is almost no way DeVos can enforce those civil rights responsibilities as written under the Every Student Succeeds Act, especially since it is likely that Trump will work to gut the agency’s Office for Civil Rights.
DeVos’ unwillingness to condemn the bigotry of Trump and his underlings (especially the failure immediately after his election last November to demand his apology for rank demagoguery against immigrant and minority children) means that she will be unreliable in overseeing the federal government’s role in protecting the educational civil rights of black and brown children. To expect DeVos to show courage for our most-vulnerable once she’s in office when she hasn’t done so thus far is pure folly.
Her opposition to last year’s effort in Michigan to bring stronger accountability to the Wolverine State’s charter school sector (as well as bring high-quality schools to areas of Detroit outside of the center city deprived of those options) is problematic to say the least. At best, the episode shows that she is far less concerned about addressing legitimate issues facing children in Detroit than with ideological opposition to any accountability. Some of her allies will note that she supported requiring private schools in Louisiana taking in children in the state’s voucher program to take state tests, and that is admirable. But what an influential player does in her own home state matters more. On this front, she was more-willing to allow problems within Michigan’s charter school sector to remain in place.
Most importantly of all, DeVos has shown almost no knowledge or even basic curiosity about either the underlying causes of the woes within American public education or about what role the federal government can play in advancing systemic reform. Certainly your editor doesn’t expect an incoming Secretary of Education to know absolutely everything about the ins and outs of policymaking or practice. But that person should demonstrate basic knowledge about current teacher quality reform efforts; exhibit interest in how states are working to overhaul the recruitment and training of school leaders; understand the debate over overuse of harsh traditional school discipline; and understand why presidents since Ronald Reagan have embraced the concept of the federal government as a key lever in advancing systemic reform.
DeVos exhibited none of this during her confirmation hearing last month. What she did demonstrate, however, was her arrogance, her flippancy, and her lack of basic knowledge about education policy. The fact that she had to be lectured by senators on such matters as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is unacceptable for someone who is looking to oversee the most-important federal education in American public education. Put simply: DeVos doesn’t deserve the job, a point reformers who have opposed her confirmation have been making for some time.
If DeVos does get confirmed today, hopefully she will do better than what the record so far has demonstrated. If not, then it is an opportunity for conservative reformers and congressional Republicans to demand Trump to nominate a more-qualified candidate.