By Bennett Baker, Print Editor-in-Chief
// One might expect the head of the Department of Education– a cabinet post called the Secretary of Education– to have experience in educational leadership. Think again.
Before serving from 2009 to 2015 as Secretary of Education, from 2001 to 2009 Arne Duncan served as the superintendent of Chicago’s Public Schools. His successor, John B. King Jr., who served as Secretary of education from 2016 to 2017, was the New York State Education Commissioner from 2011 to 2014.
Recently confirmed Secretary of Education Betsy Devos has zero experience in educational leadership. Although it may be hard to believe that somebody who has never worked in public education is now in charge of the public body responsible for education, it is evident that to our politically-inexperienced commander-in-chief, prior experience is irrelevant. During her senate committee confirmation hearing, DeVos admitted that her family’s contributions to the Republican Party could “possibly” total $200 million. Perhaps these contributions negated DeVos’s inexperience and earned her the nomination and confirmation.
In 1997, DeVos wrote in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call about her family’s contributions to the Republican National Convention, “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return.”
When asked by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) if she thought that without her family’s contributions that she would have still been the Secretary of Education nominee, DeVos replied that she did, as a matter of fact, think that there would be that possibility. It is obvious from her 1997 comment, however, that DeVos and her family donated money with the expectation of a returned favor from the party. DeVos essentially bought the nomination.
Regardless of how DeVos made her way to office, the Department of Education has its responsibilities, some of which are to “establish policy for, administer, and coordinate most federal assistance to education, and to enforce federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights.” DeVos, however, does not seem capable of successfully doing any of the above.
As the head of the Department of Education, it behooves DeVos to be familiar with public education. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, approximately 90 percent of American students attend public school. DeVos has no experience with public education. Neither she nor her children have attended public schools, and DeVos has never taught at a public school. In a 2015 speech, DeVos called the public school system a dead end. Furthermore, DeVos is a champion of charter schools, schools which receive government funding but operate independently of the established public school system in which it is located. DeVos’s lack of experience with public education and preference for charter schools may emotionally detach her from the issues surrounding public schooling, thus drawing her attention away from the needs of 90 percent of students.
DeVos’s nomination hearing was full of disconcerting answers and responses to the questions of the Senate Education Committee.
When asked by Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) whether she would agree that guns don’t belong in schools, DeVos responded that the decision should be left to local lawmakers, referencing a comment made previously in the hearing about a school in Wyoming. “I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies,” DeVos said about the school.
The reason that she cannot agree that guns don’t belong in schools is that a grizzly bear in a town in Wyoming might attack a student. Despite the devastating school shootings in this country over the past few years, and the fact that bear mace is an effective bear deterrent, when asked if she would support President Trump’s promise to end gun-free school zones, DeVos said that she will support what the president does. That is dangerous. When a department head says that they will support anything the president does, the power of the president grows and he essentially gains control over the head of said department.
One of Senator Al Franken’s (D-Minn.) questions, regarding the debate around the relative advantage of measuring proficiency or growth, left DeVos at a loss. She appeared to be clueless about the debate or even what the difference is between measuring growth and proficiency. To Senator Franken’s question, DeVos responded: “I think if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency I would also correlate it to competency and mastery so that each student is measured according to the advancement that they’re making in each subject area.” What DeVos described, however, is growth, not proficiency. She eventually didn’t even answer Franken’s question, again illustrating her inexperience. The head of the Department of Education should be familiar with this widely debated topic, however DeVos doesn’t even know the most fundamental aspects of the debate: the definitions of growth and proficiency.
When asked by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) about how she planned to protect students from waste, fraud, and abuse from for-profit universities, DeVos appeared to have no plan. After DeVos said that people in the department will make sure that federal funds are properly used, Warren informed her that there are already laws regarding the issue– the gainful employment regulations, and that those laws just need to be enforced. DeVos, instead of committing to enforcing the law, stated that she would ‘review’ it. By not committing to enforce the law, DeVos is jeopardizing the futures of students and taxpayer money. As it was summed up by Warren, “swindlers and crooks are out there doing backflips” at DeVos’s denial to commit to enforcing the laws. This refusal is in obvious conflict with her responsibilities as head of the Department of Education to enforce federal education laws.
One of the most entertaining parts of the senate committee hearing came during Senator Tim Kaine’s (D-Va.) question about equal accountability. DeVos refused to agree that all schools receiving federal funds should be held to the same standards of accountability, stubbornly repeating “I support accountability” rather than answering Kaine’s simple yes-or-no questions. Even when asked if she simply didn’t want to answer the question, DeVos replied with her fourth consecutive “I support accountability.” As a public school student, I’ve learned that a yes-or-no question has two possible responses: yes or no. The Secretary of Education should know how to answer a yes-or-no question too. It’s a good thing for DeVos that a multiple-choice test isn’t a part of the confirmation process. Such a test might be too difficult for her since “I support accountability” is not typically an option on a bubble sheet.
Most concerning was DeVos’s confusion about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires public schools to provide free and appropriate education to all students with disabilities. When asked by Senator Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) about the issue, DeVos said that enforcement of the law should be left to the states. Later in the hearing, Hassan informed DeVos that IDEA is a federal civil rights law, asking if she stood by her previous statement. To this, DeVos replied that “federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play.” That would include the public schools about which Hassan previously asked the question. Concerned, Hassan asked whether DeVos was even aware that IDEA is a federal law. DeVos responded, “I may have confused it.” Our Secretary of Education was unaware that IDEA is a federal law. She is already distanced enough from the majority of students in her uninvolvement with public education, so to add her unfamiliarity with the rights of disabled students is a testament to her incompetence. It is a responsibility of the head of the Department of Education to establish education policy and enforce existing law. If DeVos doesn’t even know the current laws, she cannot effectively carry out the duties of her office.
There is a reason that Betsy Devos was confirmed by a margin of just one vote after Pence broke the tie in the senate: She is unqualified for the job of Secretary of Education.
The Secretary of Education should know education laws, including those regarding the education of disabled children. DeVos does not. She should be able to answer a difficult series of questions with more than a repeated “I support accountability.” The Department of Education and its head are responsible for enforcing federal education laws, yet DeVos could not commit to enforce the gainful employment regulations.
She should be familiar with one of the most debated issues in education– whether to measure proficiency or growth– and DeVos is once again not. She should have at least some experience with public education either as a student, parent, or educator. DeVos, however, has none at all.
Donald Trump claims to want to “drain the swamp” in Washington. So this is draining the swamp? The appointment of an incompetent, uninformed, and inexperienced businesswoman to the head of the Department of Education– who just so happens to have donated, along with her family, around $200 million to the Republican Party. That’s not draining the swamp– that refilling it. Whatever swamp Trump claims to be draining is now being refilled with businesspeople, party donors, and those promising to blindly follow Trump’s lead.