A few days before Trump’s inauguration, Betsy DeVos experienced an aggressive line of questioning from Democratic Senators during her confirmation hearing. From the beginning, the Senators were clearly upset at the limited amount of time they had to ask questions. The Senators were only given five minutes to ask Mrs. DeVos all of the questions they prepared. Five minutes, however, proved to be more than enough time for the Senators to expose Mrs. DeVos’ lack of experience and knowledge of the education field in the United States. On several occasions Mrs. DeVos appeared clearly perplexed by the questions she was asked. On other occasions she simply refused to clearly answer the question.
Throughout the hearing there were many memorable moments. One of the most controversial occurred when Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut asked Mrs. DeVos, “Do you think that guns have any place in or around schools?” Mrs. DeVos responded, “I think that is best left to locales and states to decide.” Senator Murphy incredulously looked at Mrs. DeVos and asked her if she could definitively state that guns do not have a place in schools. Mrs. DeVos simply deflected the attention on her by referring to what another senator supposedly said, which is that some schools may need to have a gun on campus. She then proceeded to give the example of a school in Wapiti, Wyoming, suggesting that they may want to keep a gun on campus in order to protect themselves from grizzly bear attacks. Ray Schulte the superintendent of the school district Mrs. DeVos referred to, told CNN that it is actually against state law to have a gun on campus and that they installed a ten foot mesh fence around the school in order to keep any wandering animals out. Mr. Schulte concluded by noting that grizzlies are currently in hibernation.
Another head scratching incident occurred when Mrs. DeVos was asked by former Vice-Presidential candidate Senator Tim Kaine whether schools that received taxpayer money should meet all the requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA. Mrs. DeVos replied that it should be up to the states. A visibly irritated Senator Kaine responded by stating that if that were allowed, some states might treat children with disabilities worse than others and reminded Mrs. DeVos that IDEA is federal law. Mrs. DeVos simply repeated her previous answer. Just moments later, however, Senator Maggie Hassan inquired about whether Mrs. DeVos was even aware that IDEA is federal law. Struggling to respond, Mrs. DeVos simply stated that she may have confused it.
Throughout the hearing Mrs. DeVos also did not commit to enforce current education policies intended to prevent fraud at for-profit colleges, like Trump University. She also seemed unaware of a major educational debate that has existed for years over child proficiency. When Senator Al Franken asked Mrs. DeVos about her stance on whether a proficiency or growth policy should be adopted to measure a child’s achievement, she confused the two in her response. Senator Franken had to then explain to her what each meant and expressed great concern at Mrs. DeVos’ lack of knowledge on such a heavily debated issue in the education field. Mrs. DeVos—who was born into wealth and married into an even wealthier family—admitted to Senator Elizabeth Warren that neither she nor her children have any experience in the public education system, with the pell grant program, or with the student loan program. Nonetheless, Mrs. DeVos noted that she knows people that have participated in those programs.
A 2010 study from the UCLA Civil Rights Project examined data from 40 states, the District of Columbia, and several dozen cities.
Mrs. DeVos is known for being a champion of school choice, an expansion of charter schools, and a voucher program that would allow private schools to receive federal funding even though they are not bound by federal antidiscrimination laws. In response to her nomination Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers which consists of 1.6 million members, stated in a press release, “The president-elect, in his selection of Betsy DeVos, has chosen the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward since President Carter created a Cabinet-level Department of Education. In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding, and destroying public education in America.”
Research into the effectiveness of “school choice” polices demonstrates how often these programs lead to stronger segregation in schools. Kimberly Quick, a policy associate at the Century Foundation, told The Atlantic, “Both historically and currently, voucher programs have served as a means for wealthier and white families to flee an increasingly diverse public school system, moving into largely unaccountable private schools that can exclude students based on a number of factors.” This movement by white families is often referred to as “white flight.” A 2010 study from the UCLA Civil Rights Project examined data from 40 states, the District of Columbia, and several dozen cities. It found that 70 percent of black charter-school students attended schools with a 90 to 100 percent minority population, double the percentage of intensely segregated black students in traditional public schools. Halley Potter, a former charter school teacher and co-author of A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, told The Atlantic, “Research shows that free-market school choice, without diversity as a stated goal of a program, tends to exacerbate segregation and inequality in schools. The expansion of vouchers is particularly worrisome because of many private schools’ ability to pick and choose students based on academics, behavior, religion or even sexuality.”
In North Carolina, for example, researchers in 2015 found that most white parents prefer sending their kids to schools that are no more than 20 percent black and they use charter schools to make this choice. In grades 4-8, Duke University researchers concluded that over the last fifteen years, North Carolina’s public school population became eleven percent less white, while its charter-school population grew whiter. Eve Ewing, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told The Atlantic, “The notion of ‘choice’ suggests that all options are on the table for all parents, but when resources like transportation, childcare, and information access are unequally distributed, the choices on the table are in fact very constrained.” In NC, state law allows families to choose any charter in the state, as long as they can provide their own transportation. It can be far more difficult for impoverished families to send their children to charter schools in the wealthier parts of town. In the greater Charlotte-area only four of the twenty-one majority white and Asian charter schools provide free transportation, whereas seven of the fifteen majority Black and Latino charter schools do. A Detroit high school student recently spoke out against Mrs. DeVos’ stating that her policies have substantially affected her education in a negative manner by creating over-crowded classrooms and less funding for public education.
Many fear that Mrs. DeVos will inject her personal religious beliefs into her education policies due to previous comments that she made. In 2001, at an annual Christian conference known as the “The Gathering,” Mrs. DeVos and her husband openly discussed how they could “advance the kingdom” through educational policies. Mrs. DeVos also described her efforts, using the biblical term “Shephelah,” an area where battles, including between David and Goliath, were fought in the Old Testament. She stated, “Our desire is to be in that Shephelah, and to confront the culture in which we all live today in ways that will continue to help advance God’s Kingdom, but not to stay in our own faith territory.”
From being a volunteer in Gerald Ford’s presidential campaign to helping her husband’s failed gubernatorial campaign, Mrs. DeVos has been involved in a variety of roles within the Republican party.
The LGBTQ community and its supporters are also concerned with Mrs. DeVos’ possible anti-LGBTQ policies based on her and her family’s donations to anti-LGBTQ organizations. The biggest being the “Focus on the Family” organization, which champions gay “conversion therapy,” a practice discredited by medical professionals as misleading, harmful, and with no medical basis. The group ran an “ex-gay” ministry called Love Won Out from 1998 until 2009, when that program merged with another “conversion therapy” program, Exodus International. The American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and several other professional groups oppose any use of “conversion therapy.” Five states and D.C. have outlawed “conversion therapy” for minors, citing the harm it can cause to young LGBTQ people. Civil rights and LGBTQ rights groups are also worried that a Department of Education headed by Mrs. DeVos would likely backtrack on letters and guidances that the department has issued in recent years taking a strong position against transphobic and homophobic policies in school districts nationally. Those guidelines are not legally enforceable, but school districts with contradictory policies face the threat of losing federal funds and legal action from LGBTQ students, who would have the favorable department guidance on their side in a lawsuit.
Although Mrs. DeVos does not have any experience working in the educational field, she does have plenty of experience in the political arena. From being a volunteer in Gerald Ford’s presidential campaign to helping her husband’s failed gubernatorial campaign, Mrs. DeVos has been involved in a variety of roles within the Republican party. Due to her wealth, her primary role is one of a donor. Mrs. DeVos and her family have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the Republican Party and its affiliates within the last twenty years in order to influence elections, the passing of laws, and fund political action committees. The DeVos and Prince—Mrs. DeVos’ maiden name—families in a way own West Michigan. Their influence is clearly seen all over West Michigan, especially in Grand Rapids where almost every building seems to have the DeVos name on it. These massive financial contributions are what led Senator Bernie Sanders to question whether she would have even been considered for nomination if she and her family hadn’t contributed so much to the Republican Party.
Mrs. DeVos’ confirmation is anything but secured. Her own Senator has already stated that she will not vote in favor of Mrs. DeVos. Some of Mrs. DeVos’ relationships will possibly be alienated if she is confirmed as the Secretary of Education. The recently released report from the government ethics group identified 102 financial interests with potential conflicts of interest. In that regard, Mrs. DeVos’ network is as expansive as her wealth. Mrs. DeVos has agreed to divest from those companies, but refuses to give up her financial interests in them. Among the hundreds of holdings she has, one of the most controversial is a stake in OSI Group, LLC, valued at $250,000 to $500,000. In 2016, the company was fined $3.6 million by regulators in China for selling expired meat that was repackaged with newer expiration dates in a 2014 fast food safety scandal.
Even with all of these concerns about Mrs. DeVos it is more likely than not that she will be confirmed, mainly because the Republican Party controls the Senate. It is surprising that someone with absolutely no experience will be leading one of the biggest federal programs that the country has.