If I were a Senator on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, I’d vote against recommending the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education for a vote by the full Senate. And if I were one of my own two Senators, I’d vote no when the vote came to the Senate floor. I hope they listened to Ms. DeVos at her hearing on Tuesday evening. And I hope they were as distressed as I was by her evident lack of knowledge and experience and her ideological bent.
An excellent public servant is supposed to make government work for people. That is what good school principals strive to do all day every day. To make a huge federal department work, you need to respect its history and its mission. If you watched outgoing Secretary of State, John Kerry in his recent PBS NewsHour interview with Judy Woodruff, for example, you saw someone who understands all the international players, what they bring to the table, what can be negotiated and what is non-negotiable, and the role of compromise. In addition to having mastered the nuances of policy, an administrator of a huge federal department needs to grasp the department’s central functions, intimately know the laws the department is responsible for carrying out and enforcing, and understand the history that created the need for those laws and for the existence of the department to administer them.
In Tuesday night’s hearing, DeVos did not demonstrate any realization that the most central mission of the U.S. Department of Education is to do everything possible to protect the rights of groups of children who have been historically marginalized. The Department was created following the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Society. It has an Office of Civil Rights because there are still myriad complaints by parents who believe their children have been denied what federal law protects—Black children facing segregation—undocumented students whose right to a free education is guaranteed by Plyler v Doe—children with disabilities—college women experiencing sexual abuse made illegal under Title IX—LGBT students being bullied.
Besides protecting civil rights, the Education Department administers and distributes two huge finding streams for 90,000 schools across the country. DeVos didn’t mention Title I, which provides desperately needed supplemental funding for basics like additional reading teachers in the nation’s very poorest schools. And when Senator Tim Kaine asked about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and what is happening in Florida’s special education voucher program, where private schools (receiving public funds) serving special education students have been forcing parents to sign away their children’s right to services under the IDEA, DeVos replied that IDEA accountability is a question that ought to be left up to the states. Senator Maggie Hassan followed up—wondering whether DeVos realizes that the IDEA is a federal law. DeVos replied that perhaps she had been a little confused. Of course, she said, if confirmed as Secretary, she would enforce the IDEA because it is a federal law. Hassan concluded her own questioning by wondering aloud whether perhaps DeVos needs to become more familiar with federal law.
When asked whether she would enforce federal civil rights protections under Title IX, the IDEA, and other federal civil rights laws, DeVos often seemed to hedge, promising her personal commitment to the welfare of children but neglecting to commit to aggressive enforcement. The Washington Post’s Emma Brown quotes DeVos’ answer when she was asked whether she would enforce Title IX regulations against sexual assault on college campuses: “Assault in any form is never okay, I just want to be very clear on that. If confirmed, I look forward to understanding the past actions and current situation better, and to ensuring that the intent of the law is actually carried out in a way that recognizes both the victim… as well as those who are accused.”
Frequently DeVos pivoted away from the question that had been asked—usually, it seemed, to the role of parental school choice as the solution to the difficult challenges the Senators had raised in their questions. Again and again, DeVos returned to her plea for expanding privatization—what she calls “parents’ right to choose.” DeVos has spent her life as a devoted lobbyist for the expansion of school privatization through more vouchers and unregulated charter schools. Emma Brown captures one statement by DeVos that defines her philosophy of education. On Tuesday night, DeVos said she’d be, “a strong advocate for great public schools, but when public schools are troubled, or unsafe or not a good fit for the child, parents should have a right to enroll their child in a high quality alternative.”
What was never resolved in Tuesday night’s conversation is whether spending tax dollars on privatization is desirable or whether it is possible to create a range of high quality alternatives when the funding pie is fixed—and in many states getting smaller—and when the children with the greatest and most expensive challenges are known to be less frequently chosen by the privatized alternatives. One Senator asked DeVos about a Moody’s Investor Service warning that rapidly expanding charter schools in cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia have seriously undermined the fiscal viability of the school districts by sucking so much money out of the public schools. DeVos had no adequate response.
Senator Lisa Murkowski asked what seemed to me one of the most probing questions. Murkowski had recently been in Alaska meeting to discuss the DeVos nomination with teachers and principals from schools in tiny Alaska towns—communities where there is just one school in town and no possibility for expanding school choice. Kate Zernike, the NY Times reporter captures Murkowski’s words: “When there is no way to get to an alternative option for your child, the best parent is left relying on a public school system that they demand to be there for their kids,” she said, asking Ms. DeVos to ensure that her commitment to traditional public education was as ‘strong and robust’ as her passion for school choice.” C-Span’s transcript reflects DeVos’s answer filled with platitudes but wandering from Murkowski’s pointed question: “I will support Alaska and its approach to educating youngsters. I have to say, I think the creativity and innovation that Alaska has employed through the traditional public system is one that other states can probably take note of and learn some lessons from. We hope that they continue to feel the freedom and drive to continue to educate and innovate….”
Zernike also captures the interchange when the committee’s Ranking Democrat, Senator Patty Murray, asked DeVos whether she would protect funding for traditional public education:
“Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the committee, asked Ms. DeVos, ‘Can you commit to us that you will not work to privatize public schools or cut a single penny from public education?’
Ms. DeVos began to demur, saying that ‘not all schools are working for the students that are assigned to them’ and that she would work to find ‘common ground’ to give parents ‘options.’
‘I take that as not being willing to commit to not privatizing public education,’ Ms. Murray said.”
Republican Senators fawned over Ms. DeVos, as did former Senator Joe Lieberman, who introduced DeVos at the hearing and who serves on the board of directors of her pro-privatization lobbying organization, the American Federation for Children. Seemingly to protect DeVos from questioning by Democrats, Committee Chair, Senator Lamar Alexander insisted on a format permitting each Senator only five minutes to ask questions and receive Ms. DeVos’s answers. Not only did this guarantee that the conversation would remain superficial, but the tenor of the hearing became rancorous. Democrats were justifiably furious about the lack of time to question DeVos about the range of issues pertinent to the responsibilities of the Education Department—not only K-12 schools but also college loans, Pell Grants, and pre-school concerns.
Senator Lamar Alexander has delayed until January 24—when it is assumed all of DeVos’ ethics submissions will be complete—the Committee’s formal vote on on whether to recommend DeVos’ confirmation to the full Senate.
Please continue calls to the offices of your Senators on the assumption that DeVos’s nomination will eventually make it to the Senate floor for a full vote by the members. There is still a chance that President-elect Donald Trump’s unqualified nominee for Secretary of Education can be turned down by the Senate.