On Nov. 23, 2016, President-elect Donald Trump announced that billionaire education lobbyist Betsy DeVos would be his administration’s nominee for Secretary of Education. An adamant proponent of charter schools, DeVos has spent nearly 30 years of her life advocating for school vouchers—certificates of public funding for a student to attend a private or religious school chosen by the student or the student’s family. Conservative politicians have praised Trump’s choice, citing DeVos’ work expanding publicly funded but privately operated charter schools.
Conversely, teachers’ unions and liberal advocates for public education have been highly crticial of the choice. As The New York Times reported, “Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, referred to DeVos as ‘the most ideological, anti-public education nominee’ since the secretary of education was elevated to the cabinet level four decades ago” (The New York Times, “Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Education Pick, Has Steered Money From Public Schools,” 11.23.2016).
DeVos’ weaponization of wealth and political connections prove to be a key part of an alarming trend towards the corporatization and commercialization of public education. The wife of billionaire Dick DeVos—heir to the Amway fortune)—she is among many socalled “philanthropists” who use their financial clout to garner influence in the realms of primary and secondary education.
In addition, DeVos’s tenure as Secretary of Education may signify a shift away from secularism in schools. In 2001, she said that she wanted to use education reform to “advance God’s kingdom” (Politico, “Trump’s education pick says reform can ‘advance God’s Kingdom’,” 12.02.2016).
The rise of charter schools, and their support from wealthy Republican donors like DeVos, can be seen as a response to ailing public school systems. Many of these institutional failures disproportionately impact students of color as well. In September 2016, The New York Times reported, “On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 46 percent of white fourth graders across the country read at or above ‘proficient,’ compared with just 18 percent of their black peers. 51 percent of white fourth graders were at or above proficient in math, compared with 19 percent of black fourth graders” (The New York Times, “An F-Minus For America’s Schools From a Fed-Up Judge,” 09.08.2016).
However, without the proper oversight that governs public schools, charter schools often prove to be equally harmful. For example, DeVos championed a disastrous charter school initiative in Michigan, where falling scores in math and reading directly correlate with the expansion of charters over the last 20 years.
In addition, charter schools lack sufficient institutional intendance, allowing schools, educators and administrators in particular, to perform poorly yet continue to enroll students. The Michigan law DeVos helped to pass granted permission to a number of for-profit organizations to start charter schools, effectively commodifying the essential common good of public education and continuously depriving children of proper instruction with little to no repercussions.
In the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Detroit performed dead last in reading and math, about on par with its traditional public school counterparts. In light of such calamitous failures, Tulane University Professor of Economics Douglas N. Harris is right to propose that, “The DeVos nomination is a triumph of ideology over evidence that should worry anyone who wants to improve results for children” (The New York Times, “DeVos and the Wrong Way to Fix Schools,” 11.25.2016).
Moreover, we at The Miscellany News believe that DeVos is eminently unqualified to serve as Secretary of Education. Though she would not be the first Secretary of Education not to have an education degree, DeVos has never had any teaching experience and has never even attended a public school. The issues that affect the quality of education for the United States’ most vulnerable citizens have never intimately affected her life (The New York Times described DeVos as being “a daughter of privilege”), nor does she have the professional or educational background to tackle these issues with any serious lucidity.
Vassar may be a private institution of higher education, but its students do not all come from a background in private school. 69.8 percent of the Class of 2020 was educated in public schools before matriculating. If a highly respected and renowned college like Vassar accepts most of its students from public education systems, the system must not, therefore, be completely defunct or without tangible merit.
Granted, the students who attend Vassar are often very privileged in other ways, and the College is also highly selective, requiring rigorous academic performance and more from applicants. Yet, higher education is not quite the great equalizer it is made out to be. Studying in a private or public school for 12 years does shape a child in many ways, and the resulting differences in a college population are palpable, if not necessarily quantifiable—and so the great debate over which system scores better on tests, public or private, continues to rage.
Public schools often bring together several districts of students, which, in theory, creates a learning atmosphere richer in diversity of thought and experience. However, the reality is that the opportunities for an equal education for all in public schools are rapidly diminishing. According to the Government Accountability Office, public schools have been resegregating in recent years: high-poverty schools are serving increasingly Black and Hispanic student bodies, while low-poverty schools, measured by the students’ ability to pay for school lunch, are serving more affluent, white populations (Washington Post, “On the anniversary of Brown v. Board, new evidence that U.S. schools are resegregating,” 05.16.2016).
The academic curricula within public schools further deepen the divide. Students of color are generally less likely to attend schools that offer advanced placement or honors courses, particularly in STEM subjects, than their white peers, which places them automatically at a disadvantage; if the courses are not offered, students who are otherwise qualified to do well in higher-level classes and take those exams are deprived the opportunity to do so (The Atlantic, “The Race Gap in High School Honors Classes,” 12.11.2014).
For all of the suffering public school systems in this country, there are also functioning systems that turn out well-educated, prepared students—but not enough to adequately serve the nation’s children. DeVos’s efforts to privatize education will do an immense disservice to the hard-working teachers and faculty of public schools, not to mention to the young students for whom private education is not feasible but who deserve a quality education all the same.
— The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board