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.”