UNDERSTANDING BETSY DEVOS: AMERICA'S MOST INEXPERIENCED SECRETARY OF EDUCATION

BY JIBRIL ALI

It’s no surprise that Trump’s administration is lined with some of the wealthiest and most contentious figures from the political far-right domain. Corporate executives, GOP financiers, and runner-ups with minimal history (or in some cases, no history at all) in the department they have been chosen to lead is the general makeup of this administration’s cabinet picks.

Betsy DeVos, is not only considered the most inexperienced among the cabinet nominees, but also the most inexperienced Secretary of Education in American history.

DeVos is widely known as a vanguard for Christian supremacy, and has passionately lobbied for harmful legislation affecting the LGBTQ community. With a familial net-worth of 5 billion dollars, DeVos is the sister of Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, the mercenary group contracted by the U.S. military that carried out the Nisour Square massacre in Baghdad. A notorious killing of 17 non-combatant Iraqi civilians and the wounding of 20 more, by the hired soldiers--a fact which has been almost ignored by the media. 

DeVos' notoriety primarily lies, however, in her aspirations to redirect taxpayer dollars from public to private schools and deregulating educational institutions in favour of abolishing accountability measures. Additionally, her recent reluctance to confirm her support for upholding several federal laws has, understandably, elicited confusion and fear. 

As the most inexperienced secretary of education in American history, here is what you can expect from Betsy DeVos. 

Appropriating funds away from public schools.

The fight for redirecting taxpayer dollars from public to private schools is a DeVos hallmark. DeVos has been a staunch proponent of school choice, which stipulates using a publicly funded voucher system for parents to use at the private institution of their choice. These vouchers, which only partially subsidize tuition costs for private schools, would mean parents have to cover the remainder of the cost on their own. This program is likely incompatible with majority of the low income households it claims to persuade.

In addition to financial complication, there are social barriers to consider. 76% of private schools have a religious affiliation dependent on mandatory religious study. To avoid conflicts of interest, would these religiously affiliated private institutions be willing to change or remove their religious curriculum once they receive these federally funded vouchers? Would private institutions be held to the same accountability standards in the case they receive public funds? DeVos has not hinted at any specific proposal during, or since, her confirmation hearing. As of yet, there is no telling what the outcome of her confirmation will be for public schools. 

Impact on College Students

The Obama administration shifted the federal student loan program from private banks to direct loans from the federal government. This switch slightly improved the burden of debt that students must confront once graduating. Many have criticized the former system for greatly benefitting the banks at the cost of taxpayers and students. In contrast, many on the right have considered the switch as inferior, and based on her past political affiliation, DeVos is likely to share and promote this opinion.

On the issue of campus sexual assault, DeVos has brushed off opponents when concerns surrounding the subject have been brought into discussion. Under the Obama administration, Title IX (a federal law that bars sex discrimination), was interpreted to mean schools receiving any form of federal assistance or funding must play a role in preventing sexual assault. DeVos’ noncommital remarks on the subject have added to a growing list of fears and concerns the Trump administration has introduced.

“If confirmed, I look forward to understanding the past actions and current situation better, and to ensuring that the intent of the law is actually carried out in a way that recognizes both the victim ... as well as those who are accused.”
-- DeVos answering Senator Bob Casey’s question about campus sexual assault during her confirmation hearing.

The previous administration took on a number of for-profit colleges on the basis of fraud and predatory lending, laying the groundwork for legislation that would introduce regulatory oversight. ITT Tech being one of the first to shut down. When questioned by Senator Elizabeth Warren, DeVos responded meagrely by stating she would review the current regulation that requires schools to provide evidence they are preparing students for the job market, rather than uphold it as Sec. of Education. The inability to furtively say “yes” when questioned about upholding federal law is, again, troubling, and increases the already-present uncertainty surrounding her role. 

Protecting the most vulnerable in our education system, disabled students.

 

Perhaps DeVos’ most concerning response from the confirmation hearings was during her interaction with Senator Tim Kaine, and later, Senator Maggie Hassan. When asked about upholding the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), she parroted that she believed it would be a matter “better left to the states.” In a follow-up letter she released attempting to clarify her position on IDEA, she states, “I am eager to bring a sense of urgency around all of these issues: implementation and enforcement of IDEA at federal, state and local levels; improving the quality of IEPs; and expanding the conversation about school choice opportunities for parents of students with disabilities.”

In her attempt to elucidate her stance, she claims to be enthusiastic about upholding the federal law, while subsequently plugging the school choice voucher program that comprises her platform--a sentiment that works against the best interests of disabled students. It is widely known that the current state of private schools and their role in serving students with disabilities is less than adequate, and a federally introduced voucher program would only further complicate the matter for disabled students and parents.

Whether it is her inability to commit to supporting pre-existing federal laws which protect disabled students, her political drive to funnel money from the federal government into private schools, DeVos' involvement in lobbying for conservative, religiously motivated Republicans, and or her lack of history and experience within the field she now leads, DeVos' confirmation alludes to a murky, and unstable future for vulnerable students across the nation.  

For further inquiry regarding this article, tweet Jibril Ali @jirilalpha