Betsy DeVos may well be the first U.S. secretary of education to come to office without expressing a strong belief in the importance of traditional public schools as a core democratic institution, and without any detailed ideas on the record for improving them other than prodding them to compete with charter schools and private schools.
If approved by the U.S. Senate after hearings scheduled for next week, the multibillionaire DeVos would be the 11th secretary of education. Her single-minded focus on finding alternatives to public education – largely in the form of taxpayer-supported vouchers and other ways to underwrite tuition for private schools – is unmatched by any other previous occupant of the post.
A review of DeVos’ public statements has not surfaced one where she indicates that public schools can be reformed to better serve children, or any set of strategies covering central challenges such as classroom instruction, teaching methods, or testing and accountability to accomplish that. Most of her statements are about “failing schools” and giving children a way to escape them.
The one statement she has made recently regarding classroom instruction was to post on her website within hours of being selected by President-elect Donald Trump to be his secretary of education that she was opposed to the Common Core state standards — which she described as a “federalized boondoggle.”
DeVos did not attend public schools. Nor did her children. She founded the American Federation for Children, whose board she chaired until a month ago. The organization’s main goal is to promote greater “school choice,” especially for low-income children. That includes access to high-quality traditional public schools, charter schools or private schools.
Immediately after the November elections, she issued a statement as chairwoman of the organization saying that “there is an education revolution” underway in America. “More and more voters are rejecting the notion that the government should dictate where children should go to school and are rejecting the failed, one-size-fits-all education policies of the past,” she said.
The statement went on to say said that “school choice challenges the antiquated U.S. education system” that “has failed far too many children for far too long.” The federal government, it said, had a “small but important role to play” in education. It named two initiatives. The first would be reauthorizing the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which gives taxpayer-funded scholarships of up to $12,679 annually to students in Washington D.C. to attend private schools. The other would be “to change the flow of federal money” to bolster what states are already doing to promote “school choice.”
“School choice” has been broadly defined as giving parents access to any range of schools, from traditional public schools to charters and private schools. But DeVos’ efforts have been heavily focused on private schools, and to a lesser extent charter schools. As noted on the American Federation for Children’s website, “school choice means allowing parents to select the best schools for their children – public or private. The American Federation for Children focuses its time and resources on supporting state-level efforts to provide low-income and middle class families with access to great schools through private school choice.”
Nowhere does she give an indication that she subscribes to a deeper view of education as a core democratic institution, along the lines of what Thomas Jefferson expressed in his letter to John Adams in 1813 that public schools would become “the keystone in the arch of our government.”
The secretary of education position is a relatively new invention. Until 1979, there was a U.S. commissioner of education, which was not a cabinet-level post. President Jimmy Carter appointed Shirley Hufstedler to be the first secretary of education.
A year later, Ronald Reagan ran on a platform to abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Over the years, it has become a running theme of Republican education policy to call for shrinking or dismantling it altogether.
But even secretaries of education appointed by Republican presidents – including Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush – didn’t express the animus toward public schools that DeVos’ record seems to show. All previous secretaries were dedicated to improving traditional public schools.
Reagan, who vowed to shrink the department, appointed Terrel Bell, a former high school teacher who had dedicated his life to public education. Bell’s major and lasting contribution was to establish the National Commission on Excellence in Education, headed by David Gardner, who later became president of the University of California. In 1983, the commission issued its landmark A Nation at Risk report. It included an iconic sentence warning of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”
The report did not suggest providing alternatives to parents outside the public schools. Nor did the report dismiss these schools as merely “government schools,” as President-elect Trump has. The Nation at Risk report called for an even larger education role for government, arguing that it was “essential – especially in a period of long-term decline in educational achievement – for government at all levels to affirm its responsibility for nurturing the Nation’s intellectual capital.”
Bell was succeeded by William Bennett, perhaps the best known of all secretaries of education. Bennett was also a harsh critic of public schools and promoted the idea of vouchers for private schools. But he was also a believer in public education and acknowledged that there were many good public schools that deserved support, as he described in his 1988 report titled American Education: Making It Work.
President George H.W. Bush took a leadership role in focusing attention on improving public education by convening the National Goals Panel at a historic meeting at Charlottesville, N.C., in 1989. Then Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas played a leading role in the summit, and the national education goals laid out at Charlottesville informed his education policies in his administration, spearheaded by his secretary of education, Richard Riley. Before coming to D.C., Riley had made public education a centerpiece of his decade-long governorship of South Carolina.
Rod Paige, President George W. Bush’s secretary of education, was a high-profile school superintendent in Houston and oversaw implementation of the No Child Left Behind law. Notwithstanding the failure of the law to achieve its ambitious objectives, its declared intent was to improve all schools along with the academic performance of all children. It did include a small “school choice” provision that allowed students in struggling public schools to attend a higher-performing school in their district. But only a tiny proportion of parents took advantage of this provision, which was never a major part of No Child Left Behind.
Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of education until a year ago, came to Washington from a superintendency of the Chicago Public Schools, and was also a strong backer of charter schools. The Obama administration’s emphasis on testing and “accountability” triggered strong resistance from teachers unions and others. But the reforms were intended to improve public schools, even if detractors disagreed with the rationale underlying them.
In contrast, an expansive 2013 interview with DeVos conducted by the Philanthropy Roundtable gives no hint of a belief in traditional public schools. She and her husband Dick DeVos have been major backers of public charter schools. Her husband started the West Michigan Aviation Academy. But in the interview she even expressed some doubts about charter schools as a solution, taking issue with philanthropists who believe they are the “be-all and end-all answer.” Her skepticism appeared to be based on the time and resources needed to establish charter schools. She implied that giving students access to private schools, even those “hanging on by a shoestring,” made more sense.
That’s because, she asserted bluntly, “traditional public schools are not succeeding … In fact, let’s be clear: in many cases, they are failing.”
At her confirmation hearings on January 11, DeVos will have a chance to explain the extent to which she is committed to public schools, and what can be done to improve them, or whether her primary concern will remain, as it has been for decades, promoting alternatives to them.