Eight years ago, in this very newspaper, I warned against the appointment of Arne Duncan as President Barack Obama’s first education secretary. He sailed through a Democratic-controlled Senate confirmation despite a track record in Chicago’s public schools of advancing a corporate-driven agenda to marketize public schools, alongside test-and-punish policies that fractured the most struggling of communities—a harbinger of things to come. The nomination of billionaire Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s pick to be the next U.S. secretary of education, was sent to the Senate, despite a groundswell of concern—including from over 1 million petition signatories—about her lack of qualifications and her problematic track record. In a recent public statement, I joined with 229 current and former deans of schools of education from across the country to prevail on the new administration and Congress to do better. We offered four guiding principles for doing so:
First, uphold the role of public schools as a central institution in the strengthening of our democracy. Too often, education is treated like a commodity for the haves, or a competition where some win and many others lose, as if the marketplace is an appropriate metaphor for what should be a public responsibility. Donald Trump campaigned on a pledge to fuel the marketization and privatization of schools with a $20 billion school choice proposal, which would in actuality consume nearly 30 percent of the federal education budget. DeVos, through her family foundations (funded, in part, by the Amway fortune) and her involvement as a board member of advocacy organizations, has leveraged her wealth to expand school choice and voucher initiatives and deregulate charter schools. These priorities resonate with the Republican Party. DeVos is a top national party donor; a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party; and among the wealthiest “one percent” of individuals in the country. DeVos was the board chair of the national Philanthropy Roundtable, which has long opposed investing in schools as a public good, instead turning to school choice as one of the most effective policy and rhetorical levers for privatizing.
We need a vision for public education that will not deepen the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Every child should be able to receive the very best that our country has to offer, regardless of his or her circumstances of birth.
We should be wary when policies are developed with goals other than the learning and wellness of our children."
Second, protect the human and civil rights of all children, especially those from historically marginalized communities. Such is difficult to imagine when Trump signed an executive order in the first weeks of his presidency banning U.S. entry for travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days, all refugees for 120 days, and Syrian refugees indefinitely. During the Senate education committee meeting, Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., shared that DeVos would not commit to the Department of Education’s collection of civil rights data in his private meeting with her, which is a contradiction of what she had earlier assured Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member of the education committee. For more than half a century, during both Republican and Democratic administrations, the federal government took the lead in protecting and supporting underserved groups in schools by addressing race discrimination in the Civil Rights Act, poverty in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, gender discrimination in Title IX, language discrimination in the Bilingual Education Act, and the needs of students with disabilities in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to name a few. Such laws are not perfect and have not always been applied equally, but they reflect core democratic ideals that the federal government must continue to advance.
Third, develop and implement policies, laws, and reform initiatives by building on a democratic vision for public education and sound educational research. We need leaders to be informed and judicious, but during her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing, DeVos displayed a stunning lack of knowledge about key federal laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. She came up cold when the questioning turned to policy debates and learning assessments. She also failed to discuss in detail her perspectives on such issues as institutional accountability and protections against fraudulent use of federal funds, or her own track record in Detroit public schools—an expensive experiment that even some supporters of choice say has failed. Our children deserve a much higher standard for decisionmaking.
Fourth, support and partner with colleges and schools of education to advance these goals. We should be wary when policies are developed with goals other than the learning and wellness of our children. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, DeVos funded and chaired the foundation American Federation for Children, which exerts significant but undisclosed influence (also known as “dark money”) on elections, and sponsors and partners with the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is perhaps best known for developing “stand your ground” gun laws and voter-ID laws. ALEC has also long shaped education laws, from providing vouchers and school choice-related tax credits, to undermining the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to weakening teacher protections, to denying climate change in curriculum.
The federal government and education leaders have many other potential partners with whom to work collectively to build a successful educational system: students and parents, community organizations and businesses, and educators and education scholars. Schools cannot improve unless all are working together.
Current and former education deans are working to improve schools with these principles as our guides, as we imagine that many others across the country are doing. We hope that our federal leaders share this vision and join our movement.
A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2017 edition of Education Week as Another Wrong Choice for Secretary of Education