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Friday, October 22, 2021

Betsy DeVos’ backwards vision of American education

KEITH ALAN ALMLI II [CC BY-SA 3.0] / CREATIVE COMMONS
KEITH ALAN ALMLI II [CC BY-SA 3.0] / CREATIVE COMMONS
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The future of American education is uncertain under Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education

 

Senate Democrats voting on Tuesday to prevent Betsy DeVos’ confirmation as Secretary of Education underscored the existential threat American public education would face under who may be President Trump’s most dangerously unqualified nominee.

DeVos’ confirmation hearing — primarily devoted to questioning her positions on K-12 education and her support of voucher systems in which public funds are given to families to help pay for private charter schools — revealed the astonishing lack of knowledge the former Michigan lobbyist would bring to her new job leading the Department of Education.

In one of many notable exchanges, Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, quizzed her on a common question in education circles: whether standardized tests should measure how much students improve over a year (the growth view), or if they should measure to see if students are performing at grade-level (the proficiency view). DeVos embarrassed herself by confusing proficiency for growth. “I’m surprised you don’t know this issue,” Franken said.

But it’s not surprising that DeVos fumbled on a question regarding how to hold schools accountable. A political action committee she helped start in Michigan, The Great Lakes Education Project, has spent millions trying to buy policies that would expand charter schools while exempting them from proper review. The DeVos family gave almost $1.5 million to Michigan GOP lawmakers after they killed a provision that would have held Detroit charters to higher accountability standards.

And her lobbying efforts in Michigan have had little to no bearing on the quality of schools there. Detroit’s charter schools are among the worst in the nation. And the glut of school choice — Detroit has the second-largest share of students in charters in the nation — has not fostered the type of competition that school choice advocates like DeVos say will improve educational quality.

DeVos’ blind commitment to a free-market vision of American education is at odds with reality. Her willful ignorance — blatantly obvious by her efforts to kill even the most basic oversight — amounts to a moral failing that threatens students in public schools everywhere.

As Secretary of Education, DeVos would be responsible for implementing Trump’s plan to help alleviate the student loan crisis millions of Americans face. Though he hasn’t made much information or details publically available, Trump has said he wants to alleviate student loan debt by capping annual payments a person can make at 12.5 percent of their yearly income. Any remaining debt after 15 years would be forgiven.

This is not an inherently bad idea. Countries like Australia and England have similar income-based repayment programs that ensure debtors don’t pay more than they can afford — about three to eight percent of yearly income, with payments ceasing during periods of unemployment. But it’s unclear how such a system would work in the United States, where student loan debt totals close to $1.4 trillion — more than that owed for credit card and auto loans.

Unfortunately, DeVos’ confirmation hearing was irritatingly scant on questions and details of how she might implement such a plan. She incorrectly claimed that student debt had risen almost 1,000 percent since the Great Recession — the true amount was a 118 percent increase — but was otherwise largely left uninterrogated on the issue of student loans.

And questions remain in general as to how DeVos would oversee America’s thousands of colleges and universities. She ominously refused to say whether she’d continue President Obama’s directive to punish schools that breached Title IX by improperly investigating cases of sexual assault. Asked by Senator Bernie Sanders, Democrat of Vermont, what she thought of tuition free college, she demurred, calling the idea an “interesting” one.

Betsy DeVos’ repugnant and breathtaking lack of knowledge of the education system over which she will likely preside does nothing but cast great uncertainty over American public schools. Ensuring that her backwards beliefs in the efficacy of privatized schools do not translate to law will be one of the most significant challenges facing opponents of the Trump administration.

Written by: Eli Flesch — ekflesch@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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