Education Politics

Senate Holds Confirmation Hearing for Betsy Devos

Betsy DeVos’ Senate confirmation hearing to serve as secretary of the Department of Education (ED) was held Tuesday evening, as DeVos was questioned on issues ranging from guns in schools to the privatization of public education.

Each Senator was restricted to one round of questions within a five minute time period, prompting some Democratic members to accuse Chairman Lamar Alexander of “trying to protect this nominee from scrutiny.”

DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist and former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, has never run a large bureaucracy, has no experience with the student loan system, and neither herself nor her children have ever attended a public school. During her hearing she was confronted over her family’s donations to groups that support conversion therapy for gay people, as well as the approximately $200 million she has donated to Republicans throughout the years.

The Feminist Majority Foundation has come out in opposition to the nomination of Betsy DeVos, largely concerned that, if confirmed, she would fail to continue the work of the ED’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in helping students and schools combat sexual harassment and assault on campus. Devos has donated thousands of dollars to organizations that oppose the OCR guidance on sexual assaults, as well as to colleges that are notorious for refusing to comply with Title IX.

When asked whether or not she intended to uphold the Obama’s 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.” One in five American college women are sexually assaulted during their time in college.

DeVos went on to voice her support for a bill called the SAFE College Act, which would require sexual assault victims to file a report with the police if they wanted their school to investigate a sex crime. According to Teen Vogue, “Mandatory reporting laws can penalize survivors even further by saying that merely being a student at an academic institution is not enough to be guaranteed the rights afforded by Title IX that are intended to protect against discrimination, including sexual violence, at academic institutions.”

DeVos’ only experience in the realm of education has been her advocacy work concerning the Detroit school system, pushing either for  the 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 schools. DeVos and her family were major supporters of the 1994 Michigan law establishing charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately run.

DeVos initiative has failed to raise the achievement of disadvantaged students or improve the performance of traditional public schools. As charter schools expanded, performance on national reading and math tests plummeted. In 2015, a federal review found “an unreasonably high” percentage of charter schools fell into the list of Michigan’s lowest performing schools. 80 percent of Michigan’s charter schools are run for profit, far higher than any other state in the country.

When a bill was introduced that would have placed basic regulations and oversights over charter schools, she withheld financial support to Republican lawmakers until they killed the measure, arguing that the free market should be the only regulator of education. Seven weeks after the bill’s demise, her family awarded Republicans with $1.45 million.

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 there because of the instability. Because there is no limit on the number of charter schools that can be opened, more than 150 schools have opened or closed in Detroit in the last seven years, with too many seats available in downtown schools and not nearly enough in the poorest, most remote neighborhoods.

A recent report found that the expansion of charter schools in US cities is “exacerbating inequalities across schools and children because children are being increasingly segregated by economic status, race, language, and disabilities and further, because charter schools are raising and spending vastly different amounts, without regard for differences in student needs.”

According to a statement from the Feminist Majority Foundation, “There is nothing in her background that suggests she has any relevant expertise concerning excessive school discipline, the school-to-prison pipeline, gun violence in schools, or the unique needs of students with disabilities, LGBTQ students, or students who face discrimination based on racial, ethnic, or religious identity. Instead of a nominee that is committed to strengthening the ability of all students to obtain a quality education, Ms. DeVos’ record is littered with contempt for public education and a commitment to disrupting the very system that forms the foundation upon which many individuals strive for economic advancement, empowerment, and equality.”

 

Media Resources: New York Times 1/17/17, 12/12/16; Feminist Majority Foundation 11/28/16, 1/18/17; Economic Policy Institute 11/30/16; Teen Vogue 1/18/17.

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