What you heard:

The Senate will vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education this week, and there are a lot of people very opposed to this prospect.

What it is:

Since I trust that you know the Senate basics, I’ll stick with the most relevant deets to know right now. It’s currently comprised of 52 Republicans, 46 Democrats, and 2 Independents who caucus with the Dems. Senator McConnell (R-KY) is the Majority Leader, and Senator Schumer (D-NY) is the Minority Leader. The Senate can confirm the President’s Cabinet picks and other political appointments with a simple majority of 51 votes. For those of you following along with that math at home – yeah, it’s not great.

Betsy DeVos is a billionaire from Michigan who founded and runs the nonprofit American Federation for Children, a pro-school-choice group. She’s a major GOP donor (which is, really, the only qualifier necessary for this administration) and served as the chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party. She also has zero years of experience working in the public education sector and never even attended a public school.

The Secretary of Education is a member of the President’s Cabinet (the heads of 15 major executive departments, remember?) and responsible for advising the Prez on all things education. Typically, this person has quite a bit of experience in the field of education. For example, President Obama’s two Education Secretaries were Arne Duncan, who was the Superintendent of Chicago Public Schools for 8 years, and John King Jr, who was the New York State Education Commissioner for 4.

As noted, there are many people very opposed to Betsy DeVos’s nomination to be the Secretary of Education. These groups include parents, teachers, teachers unions, and every single Senate Democrat.

What it means:

The nomination of DeVos to be Secretary of Education was met with an outcry that only grew louder after her confirmation hearing last week.

The original concerns surrounding her nomination were centered around her massive financial investment in and ideological dedication to “school choice”, a policy that advocates for parents to be able to decide where they want to send their students to school, whether it be a for-profit school that is not beholden to educational standards, a charter school with little oversight, or even religious schools that the state will pay for with a voucher system. She has championed this policy in Michigan, which has one of the oldest and loosest charter school histories in the nation, even though studies show no measurable difference between public & charter schools, and abuses of taxpayer money are rampant in the for-profit charter system. 

DeVos then said some pretty bonkers shit (scientifically speaking) during her confirmation hearing last week. Here are a few choice tidbits:

  • Said she was in favor of guns in schools because… grizzly bears.
  • Did not know the difference between growth and proficiency in student evaluations.
  • Refused to say that public, private, and charter schools should be held to the same standards.
  • Either did not know that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act existed/is a federal law that any school receiving federal dollars has to follow OR just isn’t that into letting kids with disabilities access their right to an equal education.

What could happen:

The real question is what couldn’t happen to the public education system in this country with a Secretary of Education who thinks the whole thing is trash and a President who has no fucking idea how the federal government – and the many MANY departments it’s responsible for – work. But I digress.

DeVos’s biggest initiative once in office will be to implement Trump’s proposal to use $20 billion to support school choice, in the form of vouchers that students can use at public or private schools. This is an agenda she’s been pushing in Michigan for 25 years (you can read a great long-term investigation on that from the Detroit Free Press here).

Twenty billion dollars is a lot of money – a little less than a third of the entire Education budget. Public schools depend on that money, and it’s baked into their operations budgets already, so to lose it would be devastating.

There’s very little evidence that allowing for-profit and charter schools into the system improves educational quality for students. Since these schools are usually funded by a combo of fed funds + private investment but are not part of the public system, they are typically not held to the same standards as public schools and lack oversight by the government. In Michigan, where DeVos waged her proxy war on public education, it was found that often these schools were allowed to operate even with poor academic records and zero economic transparency – even when it came to taxpayer dollars. Apparently, when you allow a business to run a school like a business, its measure of success is “how much money did we make” instead of “how well did we educate our students”. Expand that model across the country, and you have millions and millions of kids in schools where the main function isn’t to educate but to increase shareholder value.

Another consequence of letting parents choose where to send their kids to school is de facto segregation. Affluent white families are better equipped to supplement their government-provided vouchers with private $, and they’re generally better equipped to navigate the complicated system. If you’re a single mom who works two minimum wage jobs, the last thing you want to do after coming off of a hard 16+ hour day is sit down and figure out how to use vouchers to transfer your kid away from the district they’ve been attending for a decade already. Even if you clear that hurdle, you still have to figure out how to get them to the new fancy charter school they’re enrolled in – and for families that rely on public buses or trains, transportation can be a nearly impossible logistical hurdle. Since schools are funded in part by district dollars, when you let affluent white families in the area off the hook, schools lose even more funding and the low-income kids in those schools are the ones who suffer. And, as we all know, “separate but equal” is neither workable nor Constitutional.

Long-term consequences for kids who attend low-performing schools and receive poor educations are broad. Determining the quality of a child’s education by their income level is incredibly discriminatory and perpetuates the cycle of poverty, slamming the door of opportunity for those kids. Poor public schools are less likely to have the support structure in place to address the needs of low-income communities: ESL programs, before and after school activities, specialized learning for those who have fallen behind. They’re also less likely to have resources available to help older students navigate the process of applying to college and securing financial aid; many of these kids would be the first of their family to attend college, so they are unable to rely on famililial knowledge of the system (unlike those in affluent, highly educated families). Overall, this type of system is antithetical to the promise of equal education and opportunity we’ve held for so long; not only does it tell America’s children that they aren’t really equal, but it damages our future as a nation.