Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s nominee for education secretary, has come under increasing fire since stumbling over basic education policy at her confirmation hearing last week. Democrats and civil rights groups are calling her unfit for the job, while late-night comics ridicule her statement that schools might need guns to protect against “potential grizzlies.”
And so National School Choice Week, a celebration of charter schools, private schools, home schooling and other education options, could not have fallen at a more opportune time for DeVos.
The annual effort, held this year between Jan. 22 and Jan. 28, includes thousands of events around the country that bring together people who largely see DeVos not as a threat to public education, as her critics have framed her, but as a champion of extending more choices to more parents.
“We finally have a president and a vice president who believe in school choice,” said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), speaking Tuesday on Capitol Hill at a National School Choice Week rally. “We are about to have a secretary of education who not only believes in school choice but has been fighting for school choice.”
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) spoke about his own rise out of poverty and the role of education in changing lives. “We stand on the verge of the successful nomination of a woman who for the last 28 years has been dedicated to school choice,” he said. “This is a good day, and there will be more and more opportunities for kids trapped in failing schools to find their way to success.”
Other elected officials who showed up to praise choice as a policy aim in education included Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the House Education Committee; Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the majority whip; and Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.), founder of the Congressional School Choice Caucus.
The Capitol Hill rally was one of more than 21,000 events taking place this week to promote school choice. In the audience were dozens of D.C. students who attend private schools with the help of the nation’s only federally funded voucher program, as well as students from several D.C. charter schools.
Malik Washington, a senior at Archbishop Carroll High School in the District, said that the voucher program had been a gift for him and his sister, who were raised by a single mother working a minimum-wage job.
“For our families to have the same opportunities that wealthier families have when it comes to school is beautiful,” Washington said.
DeVos is a Michigan billionaire who has spent the past three decades using her wealth and political clout to push for the expansion of taxpayer-funded voucher programs in statehouses around the country. She also has lobbied for charter schools.
“Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child, and they know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, religious or any combination thereof,” DeVos said at her Jan. 17 confirmation hearing. “Yet too many parents are denied access to the full range of options.”
She has won endorsements from Jeb Bush, who built a national reputation in education after he implemented sweeping new policies as governor of Florida; Rod Paige, education secretary under President George W. Bush; and Anthony Williams, a Democrat and former D.C. mayor.
Her critics say that “school choice” is a term that sugarcoats DeVos’s intention to privatize public schools, which they see as a fundamental civic institution. They argue that while “choice” sounds appealing, it works best for parents who already have advantages, such as access to information and transportation. And, they say, it does not guarantee that the options available will be any good.
Dawn Wilson-Clark, a Detroit parent and education organizer who came to Washington to oppose DeVos at her confirmation hearing, said in an interview that her five children have attended 22 schools in search of a quality education. At one point, Wilson-Clark said, she was driving 200 miles per week to deliver her children to four schools.
“Choice is not the issue,” she said. “We have plenty of choices. They’re just not quality, and they do not have the accountability that they need.”
DeVos declined to promise at her confirmation hearing that she would not seek to slash education funding or privatize public schools.
Democrats this week requested a second confirmation hearing for DeVos, arguing that they need more time to scrutinize her preparedness to serve as education secretary and her potential conflicts of interest.
The Office of Government Ethics has blessed DeVos’s financial disclosures and has said that her agreement to divest from 102 assets will resolve any potential conflicts of interest. But Democrats argue that there are still unanswered questions about investments that DeVos will maintain, including in a company that purports to help children with autism improve their school performance.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, rejected the call for another hearing, saying Democrats are “desperately searching” for reasons to reject DeVos.
“Few Americans have done as much as Betsy DeVos has to help low-income children have a choice of a better school,” Alexander said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “The Democrats’ opposition to her says more about them than it does about her.”