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Who Is Betsy DeVos And Why Does It Matter To Educators?

Reviewed by Jon Konen, District Superintendent

How Could Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos Impact Education?

With every new Presidential transition, we see new faces in the nation’s Capital, nominated to fill key positions and waiting to be confirmed by congress. United States Secretary of Education is typically one of the less talked about nominees, compared to Secretary of State or Defense.

However, those who work in the field of education, or those who closely follow politics have definitely taken notice of the new administration’s nominee, as this role is essentially one of leading the United States Department of Education.

who is betsy devos caricature

With an incoming president who comes from a different political party than the previous, it’s common to see the confirmation process of new appointees come under increased scrutiny and partisan backlash.

Amid all the headline-grabbing rancor, it is easy to inflate fears, overlook important facts, and let serious political arguments steer away from some essential facts. How many times have we watched political debates and wondered where the substance was, and when we can get specifics about what really matters—to us?

Image: Wikimedia

Unfortunately, political conversations, even about serious issues, often become emotionally laden, which can cause people to simply tune out in disgust of the whole process.

That’s why we are taking some time to examine the potential impact that a new education secretary in Betsy DeVos may have on U.S. Dept of Ed policy and federal education laws.

We are dedicated to promoting education and as such we realize that sometimes, the first step is to educate ourselves!

We decided to weed through the partisan commentary, doomsday theories, as well as the utopian pictures that politicians like to paint to sell their policies. ­­This article is not meant to sway minds or breed heated political debates.

We simply think it is important to keep up on what’s happening in the field of education. That includes keeping you informed, so you can make the best decisions about your own future in education.

Frankly, it would be a disservice to our readers to avoid this topic, and a glaring hole in our resources of relevant information.

Who is Betsy DeVos?

Those who have followed education policy debates or Michigan politics are likely familiar with Betsy DeVos. Mrs. DeVoss has involved herself in the activism and involvement over education reform over the last several decades. In short, billionaire Betsy Devos has been a well-known supporter of Republican politics, even raising over a million dollars for George Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign.

Critics of Betsy DeVos’ background point to her support for the Detroit charter school system as examples of her track record. Some critics believe her preference for charter schools disqualifies her from this position.

Even though it could be hard to find anyone in our country’s political conversation more passionate about school vouchers, this is not the main thing to be aware of. It is the debate about charter schools, and the overall concept of school choice and accountability that will likely be the root of any political storms she might stir up or weather during her tenure. If confirmed, education policy could surely undergo changes, and as educators, it’s crucial that you prepare for any changes by first learning more.

How Could DeVos Impact Education Policy?

Based on our research of Betsy DeVos, there are a couple of different ways she may have a significant impact on the field of education. There is enough editorial commentary for and against this nomination for secretary of education to make your head spin. Many critics flat out admit that they think Betsy Devos is against public schools, and wants to see them fail. Proponents claim she is the key to real education reform and the reframing of U.S. education policy change.

We’ll leave the political discourse to the professionals. For our purposes, we are going to focus on the core of Devos’s education philosophy based on where she has injected her efforts, including her time, money and organizing activities.

The Big Fight: School Choice Policies vs. Public School Systems

The number one complaint that DeVos’s critics have lies in her longstanding support for charter schools, school vouchers and tax credits for parents who want to put their child in a non-public school. The problem with this free market system of education referred to as “school choice” in political debates, critics warn, is that these non-public schools drain funds from public schools. This in turn serves to increase the fiscal challenges public schools are already struggling with. In an era of budget woes and cuts in many school districts, especially ones in lower-income communities, watching funds disappear from public school coffers can be painful.

For those that believe public funds should only be used for public schools, this type of reform is met with disdain.

Critics of school choice also argue that most charter schools do not have the accountability that public schools must adhere to, which lowers the standards for academic success. The argument contends that this system jeopardizes the financial health of public school districts, and lowers the overall academic success of the communities where school choice is hoped to help.

Devos’ harshest critics use her own experience and efforts in Detroit as their prime example. After years of studies, it was concluded that Detroit’s privately-owned charter schools were performing as poorly as the public schools they were expected to outshine. In fact, an article in the Atlantic reported that even organizations that help charter schools wouldn’t come to the aid of the Detroit district.

Of course, some say this is an argument that some charter schools do get it right. These proponents rest in the hope that the forces of politics will somehow steer Betsy Devos’ secretary of education policies towards a middle ground that improves education.

Even though Detroit’s experience has not been a roaring success, there are many examples of successful charter schools and other private schools that benefit from taxpayer dollars. These programs are often aimed at helping students in the poorest communities trying to escape failing schools; many of which do not have accreditation.

For instance, consider the Kansas City, Missouri school district, which lost its accreditation in 2011. The district has seen a rise in charter schools to fill in the gaps.

So far, the reaction and acceptance in the community has been mixed. That same year, the Kauffman Foundation, a well-respected philanthropic community organization published a report on their website written by the National Alliance for Charter Schools. In the report, they discuss the ways the Kansas City area has been able to embrace school choice in a way that balances autonomy and accountability.

Since then, the Kansas City charter movement has continued to augment the KCMO school district. In fact, in November, 2016, the Kansas City Star reported that for the first time in almost 30- years the Kansas City school district tested at full accreditation levels. Superintendent Mark Bedell hailed it as a ‘historic moment’ for the district.

Although defenders of school choice cannot point to every example of this philosophy as a success, they can use Kansas City as a model for how charter schools, private religious schools, and public schools can work within the same ecosystem of education to benefit students.

Where Does The Trump Administration Stand On Education Policy?

When it comes to national education policy, the issue boils down to which direction the President thinks education policy needs to go. It seems the stance of Mr. Trump is very clear.

A recent New York Times article about President Trump’s nomination of DeVos states: As a candidate, Mr. Trump proposed steering $20 billion in existing federal money toward vouchers that families could use to help pay for private or parochial schools, perhaps tapping into $15 billion in so-called Title I money that goes to schools that serve the country’s poorest children. He called school choice ‘the civil rights issues of our time’.”

Some firm believers in the public school system who think “school choice” is code for anti-public school policies may be alarmed by this stance. However, when we get worked up about potential changes in this country, especially with a new administration, we need to remind ourselves about another body of power that has a say in the matter: Congress.

We’ve got three branches of government that any sweeping policy changes will be likely be filtered through. And as educators, we also know that when it comes down to it, all politics is local, they say.

That’s why educating yourself on the issues is essential.

So, even though Mrs. Devos’ critics may feel they have the right to hit the panic button, they should remember how difficult it is to get anything done in a political system set up  with checks and balances. Even with that minority dissent, opponents can inject their concerns into the argument, and force compromise on the issue.

In order to bring the new administration’s philosophies on education to the national stage, they will have to expose them to the same political battles that shape every issue in Washington, including education.

What Does the Future Look Like for Federal Education Laws?

It is safe to say that it’s entirely possible that the options for schools will increase with the incoming administration’s policies. Charter schools are already a part of 41 states’ school systems, and we don’t see that being eliminated. Especially at a time when many state governments are also under control of Republican legislators, who are typically more in favor of school choice programs.

This also sends a signal that many long time lawmakers may support the new Dept of Ed leadership. In fact, upon learning of Mrs. Devos’ nomination, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a fierce rival to Mr. Trump for the Republican Presidential nomination hailed the pick on his Facebook page as an “outstanding pick.” He noted DeVos as someone who “has a long and distinguished history championing the right of all parents to choose schools that best ensure their children’s success.”

The Fight For Middle Ground In Education

As more states expand their school choice programs, expect to see more regulations and government control over academic performance and standards. Even the same supporters of the charter school system have pushed for standards of accountability for academic success.

The North Carolina Public Charter School Accelerator is an example of an organization that supports the charter school initiative. They also make it their mission to provide for organizational supports for charter schools in the state, because they understand how challenging it can be to plan, build, and manage an effective school system.

There are supporters of charter schools who favor strong standards for accountability, and those who think the free market education system can self-regulate. One of the biggest questions about school choice is whether schools that are not federally regulated can be trusted to independently police and maintain performance standards.

Although Devos may use the Kansas City example in her argument for charter school success and effective cohabitation with public schools in communities, she has been a fierce opponent of regulating standards for accountability in non-public school options. In Michigan, where the bulk of the charter schools are run by for-profit, rather than non-profit companies, she spent over one million dollars fighting an effort to create more oversight of state charter schools. Her money was well spent, as the measure was defeated.

However, this could be where she faces opposition, even from Republicans who are more politically aligned with her beliefs. Most charter schools are run by non-profit entities, which contrasts the approach and experience DeVos is most in step with, based on her work in Michigan.

School Vouchers Might Spark Smaller, But More Contentious Debates

Another potential roadblock for the secretary of education from members of both parties is on the issue of school vouchers. Although she is a vocal proponent of school vouchers as a form of issuing school choice to communities, this concept is not as politically popular, even in Republican circles, as simply letting charter schools open up and have access to state education funds. In the same article linked to above, the New York Times spells out why Devos and the Department of Education may face opposition, and an unrealistic environment for pushing vouchers at the federal level.

Here is an excerpt:

“The United States spends over $600 billion a year on public K-12 schools. Less than 9 percent of that money comes from the federal government, and it is almost exclusively dedicated to specific populations of children, most notably students with disabilities and students in low-income communities. There are no existing federal funds that can easily be turned into vouchers large enough to pay for school tuition on the open market.

So, while politicians and party nominees have a relatively easy time making promises, outlining philosophies, and presenting policy initiatives it can be difficult actually getting these ideas implement.

Looking To The Future Through Bipartisan-Colored Glasses

Without resorting to extreme predictions which can result in more partisan bickering, we are going to be honest about what we think might happen in the next few years, when it comes to US education policy.

It might not be as exciting, or as bad, or as good as you may expect…

But that’s just the nature of the never ending push-and-pull of politics.

First, with a brighter spotlight on the issue and more tax dollars at stake, expect some of the glaring examples of poor performing charter schools to be closed down before they can be used as examples to halt this movement. There will be hearings, grilling by congress members, social medial campaigns, and local politics all tied up in the complex arguments surrounding these issues.

Second. With public schools, such as the ones in the Kansas City area, stepping up their game to ensure their school systems don’t sink, we hope the result will finally be a system of public education and school choice. One that shares uniform standards for academic performance, results in fair distribution of tax dollars and offers all students the same opportunity to succeed. Because one thing we do not see happening is charter schools folding up their tents and leaving town. With such strong bipartisan support on a national level, it just isn’t practical for opponents to simply wish them away.

And a final thought that should make proponents and opponents of Betsy Devos’ secretary of education nomination rest a little easier: If all politics are indeed local, as they say, then we think the future of our public school systems and academic institutions will continue to lie where it needs to be– in the hands of the communities that fund, support, and hold local school systems accountable for their efforts to educate their students.

Have your own thoughts on what might happen over the next few years in education?

Want to get more involved at your local level? If you have an interest in expanding your own education, we fully support you—no matter which side of the aisle you sit on. Take a look at education administration degrees, graduate certificates and routes to becoming a leader in the field of education.

And remember

“Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.” – George Washington Carver