MANHATTAN — Education advocates and union leaders vowed to step up and fight for public schools after the Senate’s controversial confirmation Tuesday of Betsy DeVos as the nation’s Secretary of Education.
As a staunch supporter of school vouchers and proponent of charter schools with little regulation, DeVos's selection instilled fear in parents and educators across the country over the future of public school education under her leadership.
She was appointed after a 51-to-50 vote, with all Democrats and two Republicans voting against the GOP donor. Vice President Mike Pence cast the tiebreaker, marking the first time a cabinet pick faced such a tight margin.
“This process made clear to parents and teachers across the country what billionaire Betsy DeVos is all about,” United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew said in a statement. “She has contempt for public education and wants to dismantle neighborhood public schools. We know the DeVos playbook. Now we have to stand together and work to protect what we value — our public schools.”
DeVos made several gaffes during her confirmation hearing, revealing she knew little about important education issues. These include the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires public schools to protect students with disabilities, or the difference between proficiency and growth measures. She refused to commit to whether she’d hold all schools to the same standards when it came to accountability.
Her comment about letting schools have guns because of grizzly bears also raised eyebrows.
“Ms. DeVos's performance during the Senate hearing and her follow-up answers have demonstrated she is wholly unqualified to head the Department of Education,” said a joint statement from Kesi Foster and Natasha Capers, on behalf of the Urban Youth Collaborate and the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice.
They worry that DeVos will set an agenda to redirect public school funding toward school vouchers, for-profit charter schools, unaccredited private schools and schools that discriminate against children.
In DeVos's home state of Michigan, charters proliferated with little oversight, particularly those that were for-profit. About 80 percent of the charters there are run by for-profit companies, a much higher share than elsewhere in the country, according to Mother Jones.
“DeVos has spent the last two decades using her family's fortune to dismantle public education in Michigan, weakening accountability and oversight, elevating for-profit charter schools, and undermining efforts to foster equity for low-income communities of color,” Foster and Capers said. “We will continue to reject DeVos' attempts to weaken the rights of our children and parents, and we will fiercely defend our public education."
David Kirkland, an NYU Steinhardt professor and director of the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, also criticized DeVos for “her extensive conflicts of interest and record of diverting money away from vulnerable students and into the pockets of the rich.”
But, he added, “It should come as no surprise that Trump” — the founder of a for-profit university recently forced to pay a $25 million settlement after being accused of fraud — “chose DeVos for this position, given his own long record of profiteering."
Kirkland also echoed concerns about what DeVos means for public schools.
“The appointment of Betsy DeVos to Secretary of Education could be the beginning of the end of public education in the U.S., as we know it.”
While many New York charter school leaders have been fairly quiet about DeVos — since New York state favors much more oversight of the charter sector than in Michigan — one charter leader has been an outspoken booster: Success Academy’s Eva Moskowitz.
“Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as Education Secretary is a positive step forward for the millions of public school children across America who have been failed by a broken education system,” Moskowitz said in a statement posted on Twitter.
“Her leadership and drive will deliver meaningful reforms and start a new chapter for all children — no matter race, socioecomic status, or zip code — to have access to high-quality schools.”
Success Academy received a donation of $150,000 in 2015, with another $150,000 approved for payment from, the DeVos family’s foundation, according to Politico.