Education Politics

Betsy DeVos Confirmed as Secretary of the Department of Education

On Tuesday afternoon, Betsy DeVos, one of the most controversial Cabinet nominees of the Trump administration, was confirmed as secretary of the Department of Education, with Vice President Pence making the trip over to the Capitol to break the 50-50 split vote in the Senate.

“This is the first time in American history that a Vice President has ever had to make a tie-breaking vote to confirm a Cabinet nominee, showing just how weak DeVos’s position really is,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. “Every single Senator who voted “Yes” is personally responsible for the deciding vote, and those of us concerned with equity in education will not soon forget it.”

A billionaire philanthropist whose family has donated over $200 million to Republican politicians, DeVos’s only experience in the realm of education has been her advocacy work concerning the Michigan school system, pushing either for public schools to shut down and privatize in the form of charter schools, or offer all parents vouchers to lessen the costs of sending children to private and religious schools.

DeVos’s initiatives have failed to raise the achievement of disadvantaged students or improve the performance of traditional public schools, with results on national reading and math tests plummeting as charter schools expanded. DeVos has been criticized by supporters of charter schools for creating one of the most unregulated charter school markets in the country; the nation’s most successful charter networks refuse to open schools in Michigan because of the instability. 80 percent of the charter schools in Michigan are operated for-profit, the highest rate of for-profit charter schools in any state in the country.

For weeks, hundreds of thousands of constituents flooded their Senators with calls, letters, visits to their offices, over a million emails, and even faxes. According to Senator Schatz (D-HI), the three days following DeVos’s Committee vote were reportedly the busiest in Capitol switchboard history by almost double. Some Senators were so overwhelmed by the constant barrage of opposition to DeVos that they are now being accused of ignoring their constituents’ pleas.

Parents, teachers, students and education advocates pointed to her catastrophic performance during her Committee hearing, where she displayed a basic lack of knowledge on some of the Education Department’s most important programs, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees students with disabilities equal access to public education.

She has also consistently failed to support Title IX, donating thousands of dollars to groups that oppose the Office of Civil Right’s guidance on sexual assault, as well as to colleges that are notorious for refusing to comply with Title IX.  When asked in her confirmation hearing whether or not she intended to uphold the Obama administration’s strict 2011 policies surrounding the reporting and investigations of sexual assaults on college campuses, she said an immediate decision on the matter would be “premature.” She went on to voice her support for the Safe Campus Act, which would require sexual assault survivors to file a report with the police if they wanted their school to investigate a sex crime.

In the end only two Republican Senators, Senator Collins of Maine and Senator Murkoswki of Alaska, voted against the confirmation of DeVos. “I have heard from thousands—truly thousands—of Alaskans who shared their concerns about Mrs. DeVos as secretary of education,” Murkowski said on the Senate floor. “They’ve contacted me by phone, by email, in person, and their concerns center, as mine do, on Mrs. DeVos’s lack of experience with public education and the lack of knowledge that she portrayed in her confirmation hearing.”

Both Senator Murkowski and Senator Collins are members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and reported DeVos’s nomination to the Senate floor last week. During that meeting, multiple Senators voiced concerns over reports from the Washington Post that some of DeVos’s written responses submitted the night before were not properly sourced, as some answers appeared to share language with an education magazine article and phrases voiced by other federal nominees, in addition to a response that appears to have been pulled verbatim from a 1979 federal statue.

Still of significant concern is how she intends to divest from her extensive conflicts of interest with her billions of dollars in donations to various causes and her current family business ties. Recent information from her ethics agreements indicate that she doesn’t plan to adequately divest from her holdings in organizations such as Windquest Group, which funds Neurocare , a biomedical company with questionable learning strategies that claims to help children with ADHD.

The Senate now begins the confirmation process for embattled attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions.

Media Resources: VOX 2/7/17; Feminist Majority Foundation 1/31/17, 1/18/17; The Hill 2/6/17

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