“Disappointed” is the wrong word to use when reacting to the nomination of billionaire ideologue Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education. Disappointed would imply that we expected something better from President-elect Donald Trump.
The next president has given us very little evidence that we should expect better from him.
Trump has nominated an oil industry CEO with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin as Secretary of State, a climate-change skeptic to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, and, for the Department of Energy, a former presidential candidate who vowed to do away with that department if he were elected. Gov. Rick Perry famously couldn’t remember the name of the Department of Energy when he attempted to list it along with the Commerce and Education departments as entities he would close, but he knew he didn’t think it should exist.
Outraged is closer to the word we’re looking for. These and other nominations are not disappointing. They are outrageous.
But what’s so outrageous about the nomination of DeVos that puts her in the same class as Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, and Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry?
As Secretary of Education, DeVos will lead an institution for which she has demonstrated little regard. Rather, her approach to public education has been downright hostile. The DeVos family has an almost single-minded focus on vouchers and charter schools, including for-profit charter schools. Rather than viewing public education as the foundation of democracy, DeVos caricatures it as a monopoly that should be scrapped for a market-based system of education that includes taxpayer-funded private school vouchers and charter schools.
The Detroit Free Press reported on Nov. 23 that the DeVos family used its considerable wealth to make sure that the market in which public and charter schools “competed” in Michigan was far from fair. Stephen Henderson, the paper’s editorial page editor, called legislation that left Michigan’s charter schools largely unregulated “bought and paid for” by the DeVos family. He reported that the DeVos family contributed $1.45 million to Republican legislators over a seven-week-period that followed the debate on Michigan’s charter school regulations. The same legislation was tied to a financial “rescue” plan for Detroit Public Schools.
“The giving began in earnest on June 13, just five days after Republican members of the state Senate reversed themselves on the question of whether Michigan charter schools need more oversight,” Henderson wrote.
And what did the DeVos family lobby for? The preservation of what Henderson calls a “unique-in-the-nation style of charter school experimentation in Detroit.”
“If I wanted to start a school next year, all I’d need to do is get the money, draw up a plan and meet a few perfunctory requirements,” Henderson wrote. “I’d then be allowed to operate that school, at a profit if I liked, without, practically speaking, any accountability for results. As long as I met the minimal state code and inspection requirements, I could run an awful school, no better than the public alternatives, almost indefinitely.”
The New York Times reports that as a result of the charter school policies championed by DeVos, three Michigan cities have among the highest proportion of charter school students in the nation with the state spending over $1 billion on charter schools. Eighty percent of the state’s charter schools are run by for-profit organizations.
In September, Trump unveiled a federal education plan that would reallocate $20 million in federal education spending to create block grants to provide vouchers for public school students to attend private schools. In DeVos, Trump has found a willing collaborator in this scheme to spend public dollars on private schools. Based on her family’s track record with charter school legislation, it’s not likely that in return for such dollars, DeVos would demand any accountability from the private and religious schools that accept students with taxpayer-funded vouchers.
DeVos has no practical experience with public education. She attended private Christian schools in Holland, Michigan. She did not send her own children to public schools.
In this nomination for Secretary of Education, Trump has selected an individual whose only qualification appears to be the use of her wealth to dismantle the very institution she has been tapped to lead. That’s not disappointing. It’s an outrage.