On Jan. 17, Secretary of Education-nominee Betsy DeVos sat before a panel of senators for her confirmation hearing. The more-than-three-hours-long hearing included a promise to divest from an extensive network of political action committees and education companies and, perhaps more intriguingly, a justification that guns should be allowed in schools in order to protect students from grizzly bear attacks.
Yes, you read that correctly. Our Secretary of Education-to-be actually cited bears for the right to bear arms.
So who exactly is this grizzly-phobic nominee from West Michigan? To Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, she’s a much-needed outsider in education, whose lack of qualifications within the educational system ultimately benefits her by providing her with a fresh perspective.
However, as a fellow West Michigander, I know DeVos differently. While we probably both refer to carbonated beverages as “pop” and complain about lake-effect snow, the similarities end there. I know her as the woman who was born wealthy and married wealthier into a barely-legal pyramid scheme known as Amway; I know her as the woman with polo grounds in her backyard even though there is a virtually non-existent polo culture in an area that averages 75 inches of snow each year; I know her as the woman who’s married to the guy who was the wealthiest candidate for governor in state history. Yet, most importantly, I will always know her as the woman who referred to my kindergarten through high school education as a “dead end.”
While I am fortunate and proud to have attended a traditional public high school with excellent resources, I am well aware that many of my fellow Michiganders are unfortunately unable to share that sentiment. Michigan is below the national average in graduation rates for low-income students, for students with disabilities and for all students in general. Detroit Public Schools, which leads the nation in chronic absenteeism, and has experienced an enrollment drop of 42.5 percent over the past ten years, recently received a $617 million rescue plan from the state legislature.
Rather than aspiring to fix public schools, DeVos has been a staunch supporter of privatizing education in Michigan. DeVos, a woman who attended and sent her children to private schools, has consistently lobbied against public schools. DeVos and her family have been the center of an anti-traditional public school movement in the Mitten state. In 2003, they started the political action committee Great Lakes Educational Project, which aggressively advocates for the expansion of charter schools. This past summer, DeVos and family contributed $1.45 million over a two-month period to Michigan lawmakers and the Republican state party who fought against a bill that would have held Detroit-area charter schools more accountable for performance.
Beginning in 1994, Michigan has led the nation in schools run for-profit, largely thanks to the DeVos’ lobbying efforts. Annually, these charter schools, receive $1 billion in taxpayer funding. In spite of the financial support for the expansion, charter schools have proven ineffective. Sure, their numbers have expanded in the state, but the quality of these charter schools does not match the widespread quantity.
With nearly 80 percent of Michigan charter schools located in Detroit, the test score differences between those schools and public schools is negligible. Furthermore, traditional public schools ultimately average more money spent per student and less money spent per administrator than these charters. Michigan charters have misused taxpayer dollars to pay for a swampland in order to seem more environmentally-conscious; they offered a superintendent an over-a-half-million dollar severance package in spite of her having presided over only 460 students. Yet, with a combination of lenient or non-existent accountability measures, charter schools are protected in spite of dismal performances. As long as the charters have the resources to open and stay open, poor test scores and excessive spending are met with little to no consequences. During her confirmation hearing, DeVos attested to holding different types of schools to varied levels of accountability based on performance.
Rather than focusing on fixing traditional public schools, DeVos spearheaded a second failing educational system. She has remained unphased by the data that suggests her push for charters is not working. In response, she unloads her bank account to shift education reform in the direction of her own ideological convictions that lack any evidence of well-serving students.
Now, from a position in which she can influence the educational system of all 50 states, DeVos will carry her convictions into Washington DC. Regardless of where you may find yourself either in support or against DeVos’ plans to privatize schools and vary their accountability measures, her evident lack of qualifications is not a partisan issue.
In addition to never holding public office or having any experience within the public education system, DeVos lacks an understanding of federal law. Yet she will be in charge of an entire federal department. In the confirmation hearing, she claimed that states should have the choice on whether or not to provide children with disability services, even if they receive federal funding. However, much to DeVos’ apparent misunderstanding, states must comply with federal guidelines if they are to receive federal funding. I learned this at my public high school.
Whether the next generation of students receive their education from a traditional or charter-based system, one lesson can be learned from the woman now atop America’s education hierarchy: ignoring data contrary to one’s beliefs and misunderstanding federal law can still land you a position in this administration’s cabinet.
Brian Taggett is a College sophomore from Kalamazoo, Michigan.