If that was indeed a question, the answer is “No. Not right.” The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a confirmation hearing for DeVos on January 17th and was scheduled to vote on her confirmation on the 24th, but ,after the Committee received the ethics report on DeVos from the Office of Government Ethics, they decided to postpone the confirmation vote to the 31st.
DeVos’ financial situation, which the ethics office examined for the report, is complex and has included education-related foundations and trusts. To her credit, she has already taken steps to resolve some potential conflicts of interest and has pledged that she will take any necessary additional action in order not to be conflicted if confirmed. But the reason DeVos should not be confirmed isn’t because of financial conflicts, it’s because of education debates. There are a number of potentially paradigm-shifting debates about education and education policy happening in the U.S. right now. DeVos has shown that she is unaware of some of these issues and on the ones she does know about she has made up her mind so firmly that she seems unable to accept any new information.
During her confirmation hearing, Senator Al Franken (D-MN) asked DeVos where she stood on the question of measuring students based on proficiency or growth. This debate has a profound effect on how students are evaluated and how entire schools are judged and there is no clear right answer. Schools where a lot of students are showing marked improvement but are still lagging behind national averages would be scored very differently on test of growth than they would on tests of proficiency. Deciding which measure is used, or prioritized, can impact everything from school rankings to curriculums to funding. DeVos was not only completely unaware of the debate, she seemed to not understand the difference between growth and proficiency and had to get clarification from Franken.
DeVos was also woefully uneducated about the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) when Tim Kaine (D-VA) asked her about it during the hearing. There are a few questions and debates around this law. For instance, how can cash-strapped schools and school districts meet the needs of their students in accordance with the law? How does IDEA relate to the controversial topic of inclusion? Kaine’s question was a relative softball about whether all schools should meet the requirements of the act. But DeVos seemed to be answering a different question, which no one asked, about whether it should be up to the states to follow the law or not. She repeatedly failed to understand the actual question, intoning that it was “best left to the states.” Later in the hearing, in response to another question about IDEA from Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH), DeVos admitted “I think I may have confused it.” She never explained what she had confused it with or what exactly she thought was “best left to the states.”
The refrain of leaving things to the states was also used by DeVos in response to a question about whether guns have a place in schools. Her ostensible reason was that children in Wyoming might have a gun in their school to protect them from a grizzly bear. Whether or not that’s true (it’s not), DeVos’ penchant for wanting to allow states to have a lot of choice about education is probably an extension of her advocacy for school choice programs. These programs allow some public money to be used for students to attend private or charter schools. There are ongoing debates about both school choice and charter schools and these are two areas that DeVos does have some background in and is certainly not confused about her position. She has been a strong advocate of both for years and, if confirmed as Education Secretary, she would likely advance policy that promoted them.
Unfortunately, DeVos’ certainty on school choice and charter schools is as troubling as her confusion on other topics. Both issues are incredibly complex and the lists of pros and cons are extensive. For some students, school choice can provide incredible benefits, but it’s undeniable that every tax dollar that goes to a private or charter school is not going to a public school and the students there who may need it. There is also a lack of large-scale randomized studies of charter school student achievement that control for other variables. It’s hard to know how these schools really stack up against public schools. By extension, it’s hard to tell exactly how, and how much, school choice and charter schools benefit students. There’s also the issue of lack of oversight of charter schools, which means some routinely underperform and can undermine students by doing things like falsely equating religion and science, even though they are receiving tax dollars.
Some of these problems with school choice and charter schools were pointed out to DeVos during her hearing, which should have been a chance for her to showcase her expertise and background in these areas. She could have taken the opportunity to acknowledge the complexity of these issues and point out ways to improve the programs and address their shortcomings. Instead, DeVos called the information “fake news” and cited some data that didn’t seem to demonstrate the benefits of charter schools or school choice in a clear way.
As education secretary DeVos would need to be working, advocating, and doing what’s best for students, all students, across the country. And she must be willing to do that even if it means acknowledging problems and making changes, or even abandoning the programs she’s supported in the past. DeVos’ unwillingness to learn anything negative about school choice and charter schools, and her failure to educate herself about other education debates, should make the question of her nomination a no-brainer; the answer should be no.
Alexis Chapman is a Political Consultant and Writer specializing in policy analysis, from international law to local ordinances. She’s lived in Australia, Ghana, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas and has worked for small and large NGOs, state legislature, industry associations, and a variety of publications. She is a regular contributor to Political Storm and you can find her on Twitter @AlexisAPChapman.
al franken alexis chapman betsy devos charter schools educationeducation secretary ethics IDEA individuals with disabilities education act maggie hassan nomination office of government ethics private school public education school choice senate committee on health education labor and pensions tim kaine