Betsy DeVos and US Education in Trump’s America

I’ve never had a harder time sitting down and deciding what to write about. As an American living abroad in the age of President Trump, there’s just so much to talk about and it’s all happening so quickly. In a February 13th broadcast of On Point, John Nichols, national affairs correspondent from The Nation, summed up the sentiment perfectly when said, “This is the fastest three weeks you’ve ever lived.” So, finding a starting point on a new blog has proven difficult for me personally. However, I think the best starting point for education is with a short overview on the new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

DeVos’s confirmation process was tumultuous to say the least. Without going too deep into the procedural details for US politics, when presidents nominate cabinet members to different departments they must be confirmed by vote by US senators. This vote follows a hearing as well as chance for one-on-one meetings. I’m sure there’s a School House Rock video somewhere on the process. Many were critical of DeVos’s experience and knowledge of educational matters following her hearing.

I suggest anyone interested to watch the entire hearing; there were many shocking statements. Just to name a few: she didn’t understand the difference between growth and proficiency in student achievement, a daily conversation for most teachers in the US; she stated that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal mandate ensuring a free and appropriate education to all, should be left up to individual states (legally impossible); she refused to agree with the Senator of Connecticut, the state home to the notorious school shooting in Sandy Hook, that schools were no places for guns and cited a mind-boggling example of possible grizzly bear attacks at schools in Wyoming (it’s never happened and guns in schools are outlawed there).

At the time of DeVos’s hearing, there was a smattering of open support from mostly conservatives. This appears to have simmered down into first weeks in office. The general conservative argument for DeVos appears to stem from her dedication to the superlative right-wing views of education. In her hearing, DeVos spoke at great lengths on pushing educational responsibilities back to the states and generally reflected the ideas of small, conservative government. She also has a history of advocating for privately operated charter schools and vouchers for private schools. In education, DeVos embodies the classic far-right conservative precepts of market-based reforms governed by a small government often with little regulation.

However, the DeVos hearing prompted a deluge of criticism with people around the country calling, emailing, or faxing their representatives to vote against her confirmation and constituent engagement was fairly influential. Down the party lines with 48 Democrats and 52 Republicans, it first appeared that confirmation was a foregone conclusion. By the end of the week, however, two Republican senators, Susan Collins, of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, announced they would vote against DeVos’s confirmation. This brought the vote to 50-50 at the time of the confirmation and Vice President Pence had to break the tie, reportedly being the first time a vice president ever broke a tie for a cabinet confirmation. Needless to say, the nomination process was a tense one and the weeks after have not broken that tension for DeVos and Trump’s Department of Education.

The media immediately latched on to the DeVos’s apparent ignorance displayed at the confirmation hearing. It didn’t help that on February 12th the Department of Education tweeted an attempt at honoring African-American academic and civil rights leader, W.E.B Dubois, and misspelled his name. They then followed up with an apology with another typo, “Post updated — our deepest apologizes for the earlier typo.” Social media had a field day, but it wasn’t to be outdone by more traditional media. On February 7th, the popular satire publication, The Onion, published a piece titled How DeVos Plans to Change the Department of Education with “proposed” changes such as

  • Relax unrealistically strict standards for secretary of education
  • Modify Title IX to allow invisible hand of the market to sort out any student rape cases that may arise
  • Identify at-risk students and do nothing whatsoever
  • Ensure that all students, regardless of background, receive the opportunity to bask in the shining light of Christ

Even The New Yorker jumped into the fray with a satirical piece that “quoted” DeVos as saying “I was so excited to see the President’s approval rating hit forty… Just knowing that well more than half the country is with him gives us a great sense of confidence moving forward.”

Perhaps the most widely seen lampoon of DeVos was on The Tonight Show Staring Jimmy Fallon. In the comedy bits, a DeVos impersonator can be seen facing away from the camera, continuously mispronouncing her speech which includes her own name, and literally taking bites out of US’s “new” pamphlet-based curriculum. I say “bits” because Fallon’s show didn’t poke fun at DeVos just once, but twice.

The negative attention has seemed to give DeVos pause for public appearances and statement. To her credit, she attempted to make a visit to a school in Washington D.C.. However, she was blocked by protesters chanting GOT’s “Shame.” While she later was able to enter the school via a side entrance, the reaction to the event seems to be out of step with the reality of the events. While there was apparently some jostling between a protester and a police office that resulted in an arrest, a protection detail of US Marshals was put in place for the Secretary, an apparently unprecedented move for such a position costing upwards of a million dollars a month.

DeVos continues to make controversial statements about education in general and teachers in particular. In a February 16th interview, DeVos claimed that the recent protest wasn’t legitimate, stating “I don’t think most of those are spontaneous, genuine protests. I think they’re all being sponsored and very carefully planned. We’ve seen enough written that they want to make my life a living hell.” While that last statement is quite possibly true and, I would argue, continuous protest is supposed to be inconvenient and uncomfortable, there is absolutely no evidence that any protests against this administration has been sponsored in any way. It’s just one of many common yet unfounded talking point of the Trump administration to downplay real grassroots resistance.

DeVos disparaged teachers in the same interview, specifically concerning the teachers she met with on the day of the protest. As part of a response to the question on the wavering efficacy of education initiatives of the past administration, DeVos stated

I visited a school on Friday and met with some wonderful, genuine, sincere teachers who pour their heart and soul into their classrooms and their students and our conversation was not long enough to draw out of them what is limiting them from being even more success from what they are currently. But I can tell the attitude is more of a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child. You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.

This statement, particularly the bit about teachers being in “receive mode,” garnered quite a bit of attention and pushback. Rightly so, it’s hogwash.

Before I left the classroom in 2015 to pursue a PhD, I taught for five years in the US after three years of working with after school programs. I’ve met and worked with too many teachers to count. While I’ve agreed and disagreed with my colleagues on certain approaches and the efficacy thereof, I’ve never met a single teacher sitting on their hands, waiting to enact whatever top-down measure is coming down the pike. While I agree that teachers need to be empowered for great teaching and there have been a plethora of heavy-handed top-down initiatives, to suggest that educators lack any agency in their schools let alone their classroom is obtuse. It illustrates just how disconnected DeVos truly is from contemporary schools and classrooms. DeVos frequently illustrates ignorance and biased preconceptions when it comes education.

In Michigan, she’s fervently fought for a version of school choice predicated on free market ideology, pushing for privately operated charter schools and vouchers for private schools. Furthermore, she’s pushed for the deregulation of such organizations, while pushing for draconian regulation of traditional public schools. While it may not be completely pinned on DeVos’s advocacy, student achievement took a notable drop in several tested areas across Michigan and the policies for which she advocated have certainly been influential. Out of all fifty states, Michigan ranked 28th in fourth-grade reading in 2003 and 41st in 2015, 27th in fourth-grade math dropping to 42nd, 27th in eighth-rad reading to 31st, and 34th in eighth-grade math to 38th.

DeVos has frequently made disconcerting statements on religion in public schools. In 2001 she was recorded saying she wishes to “advance God’s kingdom” through the US public education. While she disavowed such belief, embraces equality, and denied any true connection in her senate hearing, DeVos’s family has made contributions to Focus on the Family, an organization pushing conversion therapy for homosexuals. It was later reported she was listed as Vice President of the organization that donated to Focus on the Family.

Whether or not DeVos believes in conversion therapy, her belief in equality should be rightfully questioned given recent events. Claiming state rights and federal overreach, President Trump rolled back federal protections from the Obama administration that allowed transgendered students to use bathrooms that matched their gender identity. These federal protections were a reaction to some pretty stupid so-called bathroom bills floating around state legislatures. It’s been reported that DeVos quietly pushed back against the Trump administration on the matter, but in the end whole heartedly backed the administration and its position. At the Conservative Political Action Conference, DeVos stated,

Well, I think the statement spoke to it, for itself to a large extent. But let me just say that this issue was a very huge example of the Obama administration’s overreach to suggest a one-size-fits-all, federal government approach, top-down approach to issues that are best dealt with and solved at a personal level and a local level. And I have made clear from the moment I’ve been in this job that it’s our, it’s our job to protect students, and to do that to the fullest extent that we can, and also to provide students, parents’ and teachers with more flexibility around how education is delivered and how education is experienced, and to protect and preserve personal freedoms.

I hate to be cynical on the issue here, but it seems DeVos has a troubling conception of civil rights and protection. When it comes to school choice, a particular kind of free market school choice, it’s a matter of civil rights. However, when it comes to the civil rights and protections of transgendered individuals, that’s not civil rights, that’s a matter of state’s rights.

Possibly the most detrimental policy to date coming from DeVos’s Department of Education is the withdrawal of student loan protections that, again, came from the Obama administration. Fortune provides a very succinct discussion of those protections and the New York Times elaborates. In short, 8.7 million people defaulted on their student loans under Obama due in large part to the record increases in higher education over the years. Fortune describes three key measures form the Obama-era measures for student loan lenders: spend less time with debt collection, help borrowers find better ways to manage their debt, and ensure that companies giving out loans didn’t mislead borrowers. While DeVos claims this is a cost-cutting measure, this could be a cost-making measure for the millions of Americans with loans that can be absolved with bankruptcy and plagued by predatory for-profit colleges and universities dependent on such loans.

This policy on student loans is put in a particularly negative light considering some recent hires to the department. For the last two months, DeVos and the department have been operating with temporary staff known commonly as a “beachhead team” (a term about as new to me as “emoluments”). Like many of the other federal departments, a hiring freeze kept many departments from completing their staffing process. One of the more troubling DeVos hires is Robert Eitel who worked for Bridgepoint Education, one of the companies managing for-profit colleges and universities investigated by the federal government. Just in February, Bridgepoint was found by the Education Department’s inspector general to have miscalculated the amount of federal aid provided to students and fined $300,000. For this and many other reasons, some have called for a closer look into the Department of Education.

As mentioned, when DeVos was first formally nominated as the Secretary of Education, there were many right wing and center left education wonks that tried to spin DeVos as a positive choice and some still do. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that DeVos not only lacks the appropriate knowledge and experience for the administration of public education, but she’s showing increasing signs of a right-wing ideologue. Right now, she speaks of federal overreach, but I wonder if given the chance to enact certain policies whether she would try and wield the same federal powers she’s currently criticizing. Time will tell on the latter issue, but what’s certainly clear at the moment is that all eyes need to be on Secretary DeVos and, like so much of the Trump administration, resisted when necessary.

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Ezra Howard

Ezra Howard is an EDiTE researcher at the Masaryk University. For most of his career he has worked with language learners, first as an after-school program coordinator catering to recent immigrants and then as English as a Second Language teacher with Shelby County Schools. After eight years directly serving students and families, Ezra left the classroom to pursue his PhD. His research focuses primarily on the theory, practice, and policy related to the education of language learners with limited or formal education. Additionally, as a former teacher in SCS’s acclaimed turnaround effort, the Innovation Zone, his academic interests also include turnaround models, state-run school districts, charter conversions, and innovative practices.

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