Credit: Courtesy of betsydevos.com
New U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

In this unusual political season, marked by one unexpected turn after another, the emergence of Betsy DeVos as the main target of opposition by Senate Democrats was one of the most surprising, especially because she will have far more limited powers as secretary of education than most other cabinet secretaries.

With virtually no power to stop DeVos’ nomination this week, Democrats nonetheless mounted a nearly 24-hour long talkathon in which Senators derisively declared her totally unfit to be secretary of education. No other  nominee of President Trump got a similar round-the-clock treatment.

Equally surprising – and encouraging to public school advocates – was the stirring defense of public schools, coming after years of sustained criticism from numerous quarters, both Democrat and Republican. That was capped by Trump campaign rhetoric routinely attacking “failing schools,” a theme that extended into his inaugural address when he said students were being “deprived of all knowledge.”

The dozens of senators who spoke out included many who are supporters of charter schools. They didn’t suggest that public schools weren’t in need of improvement. Rather, they defended public schools as essential institutions attended by most children in all states that needed to be strengthened, not weakened or destroyed.

That contrasted with what Michael Feuer, dean of the Graduate School of Education at George Washington University, said was the rhetoric of both Trump and DeVos portraying “the whole system as bankrupt and hopeless.”

“In fact, even in places where you have the greatest concentrations of disadvantaged children, there are programs that are making a difference that can help these kids,” he said.

Newly-elected Sen. Kamala Harris, D-CA, in her maiden speech on the Senate floor captured the mood when she paid tribute to her first grade teacher Frances Wilson at Thousand Oaks School in Berkeley. “I would not be standing here were it not for the education that I received, and I know that to be true for so many of our colleagues in this Senate.”

There were some obvious reasons DeVos attracted the ire of Harris and all her Democratic colleagues.

“She emerged as a poster child for concerns about the Trump administration because of her persona and her poor performance at her confirmation hearing,” said Andy Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, and a former education policy adviser to President Bill Clinton.

Also, Rotherham noted, a vast number of education advocacy groups at local, state and national levels are in general much better organized than interest groups in policy areas such as housing or energy. That helps explain why two other controversial Trump nominees, Ben Carson for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Rick Perry for the Department of Energy, both of whom were widely criticized for lacking the knowledge or competence to run their departments, were both easily confirmed.

Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative Washington D.C.-based education policy think tank, said the strength of teachers unions was key to elevating DeVos as a primary target of Democratic ire.

“That explains the sheer volume of calls and emails coming to Capitol Hill offices,” he said. “No other interest group on the left has anywhere near the numbers that the teachers unions do. And they know how to get their members fired up.”

“There just isn’t anything similar in the housing world, or the health world or the criminal justice world,” he said, echoing Rotherham’s views on the strength of the education advocacy infrastructure.

Progressive Democrats were also fired up by DeVos’ multibillionaire background and her central role in GOP fundraising over many years, said Petrilli. “The fact that she is extraordinarily wealthy by birth and by marriage, and has made big campaign contributions to Republicans made her the perfect foil for the Sanders-Warren wing of the Democratic Party,” he said, referring Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-VT, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA.

The new communications and media landscape also played a key role, Petrilli said. “Her handful of mistakes at the confirmation hearing were the kind of moments that social media and late night television love to make fun of,” he said. “If this had happened 20 years ago, I suspect she would have sailed right through.”

When two Republican senators said they would vote against her, that gave her nomination the aura of vulnerability, spurring Democrats to mount a last ditch effort to kill her nomination.

But at the heart of the opposition, said former Congressman George Miller, D-Martinez, was DeVos’ promotion of taxpayer funds for private and religious schools – and her support of a Trump  proposal for a $20 billion “school choice” program that would include underwriting tuition at private and religious schools.

Miller was chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee and helped draft the landmark No Child Left Behind law.

“When you see her total lack of qualifications and involvement with or understanding of the system and the laws that govern it, and a plan to take $20 billion from the poorest schools serving the poorest kids in the country, all the alarms go off, “ he said. “This was in a sense a perfect storm of ignorance, money and power, and it is frightening.”

Raising the greatest concern was that Trump had promised to redirect existing federal dollars for his school choice plan, without specifying where those funds would come from. That led to widespread speculation – and fears – that some of the funds would come from the $15 billion Title 1 program, the biggest single federal K-12 program that sends funds to schools based on how many low-income children they serve.

“If you have signaled that Title 1 is on the chopping block, you have signaled that Title 1 is not as sacrosanct as it once was, and that they are thinking of whittling away at Pell Grants” Miller said.

Miller pointed out that there have been numerous other controversial education policies promoted by previous secretaries – from the No Child Left Behind Law to top-down accountability measures – but none have gotten in the way of other secretaries being confirmed.

By contrast, DeVos’ failure to speak out strongly on behalf of public schools themselves represented something entirely different. “This sent a huge signal about undermining the public school system as we know it,” he said.

Miller said DeVos’ obsession with providing vouchers to poor parents to attend private schools also represented a fundamental misreading of what parents want. For many parents, even if they had vouchers, there might not be private schools close enough for their children to easily get to  — or the vouchers might not be sufficient to cover the costs of the tuition of the best ones. “Parents can still be upset about public schools and want to hold them accountable, but what they are seeking is improvement, not driving them to a religious school in Oakland. That is not what parents are seeking.”

GWU’s Feuer pointed to a “recurring phenomenon” in polls that show people viewing the condition of public schools nationally as poor, while giving their own public schools a relatively high grade. In the latest PDK poll, for example, only 24 percent of Americans rated public schools an A or B grade, while 48 percent of parents who have children in public schools gave them an A or B.

“So when you have a president and a secretary of education making statements that challenge the respect that people in their local communities have for principles and practices of public schools, it did touch some nerve endings,” Feuer said.

On both sides of the aisle, he said, “there has been a commitment to improvement of public education. It is only on the extreme fringes that you have had a push for whole hog privatization.”

The public outpouring of support for the nation’s public school system, if not for individual public schools, may have been one of the silver linings to emerge from the DeVos nomination.

But it is far too soon to know whether her confirmation ordeal will have any impact on DeVos’ views, and more importantly, the policies she promotes during the next four years.

Feuer, for one, is skeptical that expressions of support for public schools, expressed in such a highly politicized context, will have much positive impact. “Education in America has been subjected to so much gloom and doom rhetoric, followed by irrational exuberance,” he said. “What we need is a sustained and rational debate about what is working and what is not.”

 

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  1. A C Germany 3 months ago3 months ago

    Although I don't doubt that teacher unions have significant resources and clout, the reason so many were concerned by Ms. DeVos was most citizens in the U.S. went to public schools. Public schools, for good or ill, has a pervasive effect on most Americans and that influences their views about education and causes passion on both sides. I think Ms. Devos advocacy for "school choice" is wrong-headed but not why many opposed her nomination. In … Read More

    Although I don’t doubt that teacher unions have significant resources and clout, the reason so many were concerned by Ms. DeVos was most citizens in the U.S. went to public schools. Public schools, for good or ill, has a pervasive effect on most Americans and that influences their views about education and causes passion on both sides.
    I think Ms. Devos advocacy for “school choice” is wrong-headed but not why many opposed her nomination. In no other career could a person with no working experience in a field be considered to oversee it. Ms. Devos never taught, was never in educational administration, counseling, or educational research. Ms. Devos never went to public school, nor did her children. She never used a Pell grant, nor did her children, yet she was asked to oversee a field she had no practical experience with.
    Add to that her questionable performance at the confirmation hearing and many arrive at the view that she is an ill-informed advocate who was the beneficiary of nepotism.
    I have long advocated for no instant replay in football but that does not qualify me to be commissioner of the NFL.

  2. CarolineSF 4 months ago4 months ago

    It's ironic that George Miller would suddenly speak up, as he has been a vociferous attacker of teachers, teachers' unions (those uppity women! #NonethelessShePersisted) and public schools, and a huge advocate of neoliberal so-called "reform" hustles. Edsource gives a forum to many similar anti-teacher, anti-public-education voices too, and it's clear that it can't afford to do otherwise as it will offend its funders. Does this all lead to a Betsy DeVos in charge of the … Read More

    It’s ironic that George Miller would suddenly speak up, as he has been a vociferous attacker of teachers, teachers’ unions (those uppity women! #NonethelessShePersisted) and public schools, and a huge advocate of neoliberal so-called “reform” hustles. Edsource gives a forum to many similar anti-teacher, anti-public-education voices too, and it’s clear that it can’t afford to do otherwise as it will offend its funders. Does this all lead to a Betsy DeVos in charge of the nation’s education policy? Discuss among yourselves, possibly while cringing a bit.

    Replies

    • Floyd Thursby 3 months ago3 months ago

      Caroline, I have to say you live in a bubble. The attitude you display in just calling people anti-teacher limits the ability to understand the complexity of the criticism. You are not anti-teacher if you believe a 7-step process to fire bad teachers is excessive and makes it too hard to do so, and want pay to reflect value add rather than seniority, or question if some teachers call in sick when not … Read More

      Caroline, I have to say you live in a bubble. The attitude you display in just calling people anti-teacher limits the ability to understand the complexity of the criticism.
      You are not anti-teacher if you believe a 7-step process to fire bad teachers is excessive and makes it too hard to do so, and want pay to reflect value add rather than seniority, or question if some teachers call in sick when not really sick.
      You’re not anti-waiter or lawyer if you question those professions. Why is it that the union rhetoric has become so entrenched, people feel you’re anti teacher if you don’t agree with a policy which makes it incredibly difficult to fire bad teachers? Just as we demonize the rural Trump voters instead of try to understand why they are cynical and mistrusting of our candidate, an attitude seen as elitist which caused a narrow loss, you make no effort to understand people who complain about bad teachers.
      I’m a liberal Democrat who protests wars, supports single payer, opposes the death penalty, wants mandatory tutoring for all kids behind on test levels as a condition of receiving welfare in any form (housing/food/cash) so that we can improve the success of poor kids, wants to legalize drugs, gambling and prostitution, pro choice, etc. However, I have suffered due to bad teachers.
      My son had a horrible 1st grade teacher who all 22 sets of parents wanted fired and lasted the whole year, showing up 60 of 180 days, and she had taught at and been pushed out of a school a mile away and no one checked references and found out her reputation because of union-enacted seniority rules.

      Ten years ago when Waiting for Superman came out, if the union had seen the writing on the wall and compromised and put in policies pressuring teachers to work harder, providing merit pay, limiting seniority, limiting sick days to the actually sick days, and eliminating LIFO, they could have higher average salaries for teachers now and Hillary as President.

      That they dug in so militantly has caused many to say, we can’t have someone like Tom Torlakson in that role, he’ll just support the status quo. I’m a liberal who has been a victim, kind of like a liberal who has been mugged becoming more anti-crime.

      • CarolineSF 3 months ago3 months ago

        Just noting that I was a parent at the same school and was one of the ones who worked successfully to have that teacher removed, although we wanted the person (apparently struggling with various personal crises) to get help and not just be moved around -- a management decision, not union. I will just say that the situation is not as described. A situation with an individual teacher and poor management is a separate issue … Read More

        Just noting that I was a parent at the same school and was one of the ones who worked successfully to have that teacher removed, although we wanted the person (apparently struggling with various personal crises) to get help and not just be moved around — a management decision, not union. I will just say that the situation is not as described. A situation with an individual teacher and poor management is a separate issue from the massive assault on teachers that has been a hallmark of so-called education “reformers” over recent years.

        • Floyd Thursby 3 months ago3 months ago

          Are you sure you were at that school? This was in the Richmond neighborhood. The principal wanted her fired immediately, as did the district. They all were afraid of union rules and told us they had to leave her there due to the rules. She was fired, but only at the end of the year. The union also made it so you can only ask scripted simple question in checking references, not … Read More

          Are you sure you were at that school? This was in the Richmond neighborhood. The principal wanted her fired immediately, as did the district. They all were afraid of union rules and told us they had to leave her there due to the rules. She was fired, but only at the end of the year.
          The union also made it so you can only ask scripted simple question in checking references, not the kind of detailed follow-up questions which would have prevented the hire. I’m on school site council at the same middle school your kids go to if you were at that school, and we interview administrators and have no ability to ask follow-up questions, only scripted questions. We’re told candidates are “vetted” downtown.

          The environment is not a universally anti-teacher as you claim. Five years after ‘Waiting for Superman’ and polls showing over 70% of Californians and over 75% of black and Latino Californians opposed LIFO/Tenure/Seniority, LA’s teachers union got over $40k for a teacher who had been indicted on charges which ultimately sent him to prison for 26 years. We haven’t been able to implement publicizing of teachers’ test scores, and any ideas of merit pay have been rejected. And in San Francisco, a very pro union school board member was run out of office after over 25 years for opposing the union’s LIFO ideals on one minor issue, keeping enterprise zone teachers outside of seniority rules.
          Many reforms have been stopped. Management is threatened with opposition by the teachers if they do try to do their job and their lives become difficult. So the union has had pretty much monopoly power, and liberal California has done no better than Texas, Idaho, Utah, Florida or Mississippi on closing the achievement gap, no worse but absolutely no better.