The Senate’s vote on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos for U.S. Secretary of Education will be tomorrow, February 7. Two Republicans, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have declared they will join all the Democrats to vote against Ms. DeVos. The confirmation of Jeff Sessions for Attorney General has been delayed to ensure that he can vote with his Republican colleagues to get the DeVos nomination over the bar before he quits the Senate to assume his new position leading the Department of Justice. Unless another Republican changes his/her mind, it is expected that Vice President Mike Pence will break the tie vote to confirm the DeVos nomination. This would be the first time in history that a vice president has had to break a tie on a Cabinet appointment.
The NY Times‘s Gail Collins summarizes succinctly just why President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos has become so controversial: “How bad do you need to be to get rejected for Donald Trump’s cabinet? We’ve got nominees who don’t really know anything about the subject they’d be overseeing. Some hatehatehate the federal programs they’d be charged with guiding. Some have messy financial issues that haven’t been resolved. But Trump’s pick for secretary of education swept the board. Trifecta! Betsy DeVos, it’s become clear, knows very little about public schools, doesn’t like them and has minimal experience in management. Plus, she’s a billionaire whose money is in a bewildering stack of holding companies.”
Despite her ethics clearance, her conflicts of interest go way back. Not only is she invested in a chain of dubious and for-profit Neurocore brain wave therapy centers whose claim is to cure Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but she and her husband were also invested a decade ago in the online charter giant K12 Inc, whose company-reported graduation rates have been widely questioned along with those of other schools in the cyber charter sector where students study on computers from home. Here is Benjamin Herold’s report for Education Week last Wednesday: “In her written response to questions from a key Democratic senator, Education Secretary-nominee Betsy DeVos defended full-time online charter schools using graduation rates significantly higher than those used for state and federal accountability purposes. The figures and language cited by DeVos directly mirror those used in a report from K12 Inc., the country’s largest for-profit operator of cyber charter schools, in which DeVos is a former investor. According to the Ohio education department, for example, the Ohio Virtual Academy has a four-year graduation rate of 53 percent, good for an ‘F’ on the state’s accountability system. DeVos has put the figure at 92 percent.” In her answers to questions, DeVos used K12 Inc.’s scores not only for the Ohio Virtual Academy but also for the Idaho, Nevada, Oklahoma and Utah Virtual Academies, all affiliates of K12 Inc. Why does this matter so much? Well, Betsy DeVos has expressed a lifelong commitment to school choice, but in a state with a lot of tiny towns where the public schools are the only educational institutions and where opening a number of school choices through vouchers and charter schools isn’t possible, really the only way education can be privatized and profits made is through “distance” learning online. Most objective evaluations of online learning, however, such as from the pro-school-choice Walton Foundation and the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes have found that virtual schools don’t really work very well.
Strong opinion pieces have proliferated in the press this week. In Wanted: One Republican with Integrity, to Defeat Betsy DeVos, the editorial board of the NY Times declared: “There are few more telling examples of Mr. Trump’s disdain for the federal government’s critical role in lifting up America’s schoolchildren than his choice of Ms. DeVos… Betsy DeVos’s nomination is not about making public education more effective, or helping publicly schooled children succeed; it’s about blowing up the system without a clue as to what comes next.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board demanded: Sen. Rob Portman–Stand Up and Reject Betsy DeVos.
Senator Tim Kaine was joined by retired Senator and former chair of the Senate HELP Committee, Tom Harkin expressing dismay about Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing, in which DeVos demonstrated confusion about what would be her responsibility, if confirmed, to enforce protections for students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): “As the potential champion of all students in the country, including students with disabilities, DeVos should understand and protect the constitutional right of a child with a disability to an accessible and free public education…. DeVos’ uninformed responses about IDEA made clear there are serious questions about her ability to serve and support children and youth with disabilities across the country. The United states currently serves 6.5 million students under the IDEA….”
The most personal and moving commentary is from New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan in the NY Times: “Ensuring access to public education for every student is an issue that is personal to my family. My adult son Ben was born with cerebral palsy. Ben is bright and funny (and quite handsome, according to this unbiased source.) He cannot walk, cannot use his fingers to type and can speak only in difficult-to-understand single words. If Ben had been born a generation or two earlier, we, his parents would have been pressured to put him in an institution. But Ben was able to go to a public school in his hometown, Exeter, N.H., because of the tireless work of the advocates, educators and public officials who came before us. Ben had the opportunity to go to school and make friends in his own community—something that all parents want for their children… Instead of supporting public schools, Ms. DeVos has supported voucher systems that divert taxpayer dollars to private, religious and for-profit schools without requirements for accountability… To use a voucher, families are sometimes forced to sign away their child’s legal rights, and the schools receiving the voucher often lack the experience or resources necessary to educate the child.”
If you can make time, I urge you to watch Senator Patty Murray, the Ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, in the speech she presented in an unusual 6:30 AM session of the Senate last Friday (Murray’s speech begins at 8 minutes into the video.) as the Senate voted to move the DeVos nomination to a vote by the full Senate at the beginning of this week. Murray describes how HELP Committee Chair, Senator Lamar Alexander, a devotee of school vouchers and privatization, railroaded the nomination of DeVos through the HELP committee, limiting debate and forcing the committee to consider the nomination despite the late arrival of a less-than-transparent Ethics Committee report on DeVos’s complicated financial holdings. Murray describes the holding companies within holding companies and multiple DeVos and Prince family trusts that are virtually impossible to untangle. And she criticizes DeVos’s poor performance in her HELP Committee confirmation hearing, a hearing that exposed DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and apparent ignorance about basic education issues: “Betsy DeVos has spent her career and her fortune rigging the system to privatize and de-fund public education… She has no experience with public schools except through her work trying to tear them down… She has committed herself for decades to an extreme ideological goal: to push students out of public schools and weaken public education no matter what. And she has spent millions of dollars in political donations and on organizations and super PACs to try and influence elections and policies to accomplish her goal.”
Please keep up the pressure on your Senators before tomorrow’s vote. Here are links to the Senators’ phone numbers and here is an action alert from the National Education Association that you can personalize and send if you cannot get through on the phone.