Teachers have some tough questions they want Congress to ask Betsy DeVos, the Michigan billionaire and former Michigan Republican Party chairwoman who was nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to be secretary of education.
DeVos’s nomination has sparked significant opposition among public education advocates, who oppose her longtime support for school reform that privatizes public schools and who say she has no qualifications for the job. Russ Walsh, coordinator of College Reading at Rider University, made the latter point about her lack of interaction with the public school system with the first question on his list of 10:
Ms. DeVos, would you please state, concisely, any relevant experience you have had in public education, either as a student, a teacher, a school leader, a public school board member, a parent of a public school child, a PTA member, a volunteer in a traditional public school or as someone who once drove past a public school?
Why, others want to know, does someone who has called the public education a “dead end” want to be in charge of the department that is responsible for federal policy affecting public schools? Does she have plans to improve college access or early childhood education? How will she enforce the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act? Is she concerned about too much standardized testing? Are teachers fairly evaluated? Does she intend to advance the privatization of public schools?
Opposition to DeVos has been unusually strong for an education secretary, and her confirmation hearing this week could be contentious. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee had originally planned to hold a confirmation hearing Jan. 11, but postponed it until Jan. 17 after Democrats complained that the Office of Government Ethics, which is responsible for vetting presidential nominees, was still working through its review of her background and finances. On Jan. 13, Trump’s transition team acknowledged that she had omitted a $125,000 political donation from disclosures she submitted to the committee, my colleague Emma Brown reported.
Many people and organizations in the education world have been advancing lists of questions that they want Congress to consider. Diane Ravitch, the historian and former assistant secretary of education who has been the titular leader of the movement against corporate school reform, offered her list, including:
* Are you aware of the widespread fraud and profiteering in the charter industry in Michigan?
* If you are secretary of education, what would you do to reduce fraud, waste and abuse in the charter industry?
* Do you believe that students who use public funds to go to religious schools should be subject to the same standards and tests as students in public schools?
* Do you think that Thomas Jefferson was wrong when he recommended a separation of church and state?
Michael Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute and executive director of the Education Next Journal, offered his own list, including:
* Federal involvement nearly killed the Common Core State Standards. Are you worried that federal involvement could do the same to school choice?
* President-Elect Trump talked about a $20 billion program for school choice on the campaign. Will you pursue a program of that scale? Will you propose that the money come from existing programs (Title I and IDEA especially) or will this be new money?
* The school choice movement, as well as broader reform efforts, have focused mostly on helping low-income kids and children of color. Is that focus appropriate or should we have a broader aim, including better serving middle-class and affluent students, too? And other ill-served populations such as gifted kids?
Many education organizations have sent letters to the committee with lists of questions about DeVos’s qualifications and her intentions in making and implementing education policy. Here are some of those questions from teachers, many of whom have felt that they have been unfairly targeted by corporate school reformers for problems in public education.
From teachers involved with the Educator Voice Fellowship, a nonprofit group that provides training to teachers and principals to shape education policy decisions. It is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the ExxonMobil Foundation, the Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Kern Family Foundation, and the NEA Foundation):
Trish Greenwood (CO): How do you plan to support the students whose parents will not advocate to get them out of a struggling school and into a charter or private school? Currently, the educators, administrators, state and national policy makers are the advocates for these students. Your singular position on increasing choice does not apply to these students yet they remain some of the most at-risk youth in the nation.
Sara Garro (NY): What will you use as a basis for your initiatives and policy making decisions regarding pedagogy and best practice, having neither studied nor worked as a teacher or principal in any school? From what, where or whom will you draw expert knowledge on the art of teaching and learning?
Danielle Goedel (NY): Having not attended public school, what do you think public education brings to the fabric of our country?
Lisa Meade (NY): What are the specific strengths of the public school system that you would want to continue to support in your work as secretary of education?
Chris Coble (CO): I work in the most amazing public school. Our population is very low income and students of color — lots of colors. We provide them with an amazing education both at a college level and at a career and technology level. Our students succeed in spite of all the barriers. How will you keep this amazing school funded at the highest level and ALL of our amazing students in this school of high quality.
Michelle Helmer (NY): Many rural districts and those that serve economically disadvantaged youth have come to rely on federal funding to support much needed programs and provide opportunities to children they may otherwise not have. My understanding is that the position of the incoming administration is to reduce federal control over education. Will that come at the cost of federal funds such as Title 1?
Stacey Hervey (CO): How will you ensure our most vulnerable populations, those that cannot choice into other schools due to various circumstances, will still receive high quality access to education? How will you work to combat some of the socio-economic situations that impact our students such as parental substance abuse, little access to resources before kindergarten, homelessness, trauma in childhood?
Dr. Elissa G. Smith (NY): In rural America, distance/geography nearly always excludes school choice options for which you have a record of advocating (vouchers, charter schools and private schools). In light of this, how will you improve rural public schools who desperately need your support?
Kelly Wilson (CO): What are your thoughts on funding for restorative justice programs and supporting youth who feel marginalized and underrepresented by the current selection of cabinet nominees?
Amanda Zullo (NY): How will you ensure that ALL schools are funded equitably?
Christopher Affie (CT): What will you do to gain the trust of public school teachers?
Jason Breslin (NY): With free and public education being a hallmark of American education, how do you ease the minds of public educators and professionals who know your stance on privatizing education?
Heather Duncan (IL): What are your plans for early childhood education? Will this crucial segment of learners be overlooked or suffer cuts to funding?
Amber Chandler (NY): How will you attract teachers to the profession given the unrest and uncertainty of public education right now?
Michele Cleary (NJ): What will you do to ensure that excellent educators are distributed equitably within and across districts?
Latosha Guy (CA): What specifically are you planning to do to improve the quality of teacher education programs?
Rachel K (NY): How do you plan to ensure that new changes in education do not push highly qualified educators to seek employment in more stable non-education employment areas?
Joanna Schimizzi (NC): In North Carolina, charters are only required to have 50 percent of their teachers be licensed teachers. How do you propose that charter schools ensure their staff have the appropriate credentials and continued education needed to support all students? Would you consider advocating for National Board Certification as an acceptable substitute for a state teaching license?
Tanika Johnson (TN): In the role of a special educator and advocate and instructional leader, I recognize the importance of students with disabilities, English language learners, and those that struggle receiving access to the highest quality of texts and materials, supports, and resources. A lack of equity should not serve as a barrier for ensuring that these subgroups are successful and on the path to college and career. What mechanisms could be put in place to ensure that these diverse learners excel in optimal teaching environments, with the highest caliber of teachers, and standards-aligned lessons and units that are adapted to their Individualized Education Plans?
Chris Dolgos (NY): What role do the arts play in your vision of education in 21st century America?
And here are questions from teachers who are members of Educators4Excellence, a teacher-led nonprofit group:
And another question from Rider University’s Walsh:
- You have a long record of advocating for school choice in the form of vouchers and charter schools. What if parents’ first choice, as it is for most American families, is to send their children to a clean, safe, well-resourced, professionally-staffed, local neighborhood public school? How would the voucher and charter school schemes you advocate support this kind of choice?