President Barack Obama had two education secretaries who were highly divisive in the education world. In fact, the man who ran Obama’s Education Department for seven years, Arne Duncan, became so controversial that members of two teachers unions — long supporters of Democrats — approved resolutions against him in 2014. Duncan’s successor, John King, faced the closest confirmation vote, in March 2016, on the Senate floor of any education secretary nominee up to that time.
But Betsy DeVos, the Michigan billionaire chosen by President Trump to be education secretary, brings a whole new dimension to the discussion of polarizing figures in education leadership.
DeVos is clearly the most controversial education nominee in the history of the nearly 40-year-old Education Department. While the Senate education committee on Tuesday sent her nomination to the full Senate on a party-line vote, a few Republican senators said they are not certain if they will support her on the Senate floor. Democrats say they have 48 solid votes against her, but they need 51 to defeat the nomination.
No education secretary nominee before her was the target of such protests, mass email campaigns, petitions and impassioned denunciations at a Senate confirmation hearing. Supporters have countered with digital ads saying, “Confirm Betsy DeVos.”
No education secretary nominee was opposed by the ranking member of the Senate education panel before Tuesday, when Democratic Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) voted against DeVos. And Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader in the Senate, has promised to vote against DeVos when her nomination comes to the floor.
For the record, this is how the Senate votes went for previous education secretary nominees:
- Shirley Hufstedler under President Jimmy Carter — 81-2
- Terrel Bell under President Ronald Reagan — 90-2
- William Bennett under Reagan — 93-0
- Lauro Cavazos Jr. under Reagan — 94-0
- Lamar Alexander under President George H.W. Bush — confirmed by voice vote
- Richard Riley under President Bill Clinton — confirmed by unanimous consent
- Rod Paige under President George W. Bush — confirmed by voice vote
- Margaret Spellings under George W. Bush — confirmed by voice vote
- Arne Duncan under President Barack Obama — confirmed by voice vote
- John King under Obama — confirmed 49-40
King’s vote was the deepest split ever, a reflection of how angry Senate Republicans were at the Obama administration for using unprecedented federal power to make and implement education policy, a role traditionally left to states. But Republican elders in the Senate, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky as well as Alexander and Orrin Hatch of Utah, all voted for King.
As of now, no Democrat is expected to vote for DeVos.
Certainly DeVos’s nomination has come at a time of deep divisions in the country, underscored by Trump’s election and the protests that have erupted over his policies in the short time he has been commander in chief.
But the opposition to DeVos is less about politics and more about her vision for the future of American education.
DeVos has long been seen by many in the education world as on the forefront of the movement to spread school choice and using public dollars to allow families to pay for tuition at private schools and religious schools that are poorly regulated. She has directed millions of dollars from her family fortune to support candidates and programs that spread school choice — at the expense, critics say, of traditional public schools that educate the vast majority of America’s school children. They look to a statement she made in 2015 at a speech in Texas as evidence that she has little regard for the public education system and wants to privatize it:
“It’s a battle of Industrial Age versus the Digital Age. It’s the Model T versus the Tesla. It’s old factory model versus the new Internet model. It’s the Luddites versus the future. We must open up the education industry — and let’s not kid ourselves that it isn’t an industry — we must open it up to entrepreneurs and innovators.
This is how families without means will get access to a world-class education. This is how a student who’s not learning in their current model can find an individualized learning environment that will meet their needs.
We are the beneficiaries of start-ups, ventures, and innovation in every other area of life, but we don’t have that in education because it’s a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. It’s a monopoly, a dead end. And the best and brightest innovators and risk-takers steer way clear of it. As long as education remains a closed system, we will never see the education equivalents of Google, Facebook, Amazon, PayPal, Wikipedia, or Uber. We won’t see any real innovation that benefits more than a handful of students.”
DeVos has supporters — including Alexander — who see her as being in the mainstream of school choice supporters and say she has deep concern for children and wants to help traditional school districts get better, especially in places where they have long failed children.
But her critics see her as a radical — and some in the school choice world have come out against her, expressing concern about her real interest in helping traditional school districts.
Her characterization of public education as an “industry” is a core tenet of corporate school reformers, who believe public schools should be run like businesses. Public school advocates see America’s public education system as a civic institution — the country’s most important — that can’t be run like a business without ensuring that some children will be winners and others will be losers, just like in business.
The fight over DeVos is really about what vision of education will prevail in the United States.
Another question swirling around DeVos is how well she knows key education issues. She cemented concerns at her confirmation hearing on Jan. 17, when she was peppered with tough questions from Democrats and displayed a lack of knowledge about some key education issues. For example, she didn’t seem to know that the federal law guaranteeing students with disabilities the right to a free and appropriate education had to be implemented by the states and implementation wasn’t up to their discretion.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), encapsulated those concerns on Tuesday when he said:
I have not gotten as much response to any nominee as I got to this one. I went to dinner on Friday night with [former] vice president [Walter] Mondale at his favorite restaurant. He took me in the kitchen…. One of the guys in the kitchen said, ‘Vote against DeVos.’ He wasn’t a teacher. ”
Now [at the confirmation hearing] I asked a question to her which just goes to the core of how we create accountability [for schools]. Sen. [Tim] Kaine [of Virginia] asked her repeatedly, ‘Would you hold these [private] schools that receive voucher money equally accountable’ [as traditional public schools.] She refused to do that.
“And the way we hold schools accountable in large part is by testing. And what I asked her was the most basic debate about testing, which is growth vs. proficiency. We all know that a fifth-grade teacher who takes a kid from a second-grade level of learning of reading, say, to a fourth-grade level of reading is a hero. But if you measure by proficiency, that teacher is a goat. We know the importance of growth vs. proficiency. There isn’t a teacher in this country that doesn’t know. There isn’t a principal in this country who doesn’t know. That isn’t a superintendent who doesn’t know.
“This was one of the most embarrassing, it’s the most embarrassing hearing I’ve ever attended. This woman has less knowledge about public education than almost any one who has any interest at all in education. Yes, she’s been involved in education but it’s been about her ideology.”
Republicans see talk like that as hyperbole. Alexander, for example, has argued against accusations that she is an education extremist. He recently wrote:
Democrats desperately are searching for a valid reason to oppose Betsy DeVos for U.S. education secretary because they don’t want Americans to know the real reason for their opposition.
That real reason? She has spent more than three decades helping children from low-income families choose a better school. Specifically, Democrats resent her support for allowing tax dollars to follow children to schools their low-income parents’ choose — although wealthy families choose their children’s schools every day.
Republicans also see DeVos as someone who they believe will respect the will of Congress, which in late 2015 passed a successor law with bipartisan support to No Child Left Behind — eight years late — as a reaction to the micro-managing of education policy by the Obama administration. They viewed the Obama administration as attempting to bypass Congress on education policy, especially when it awarded waivers to states from the most onerous parts of the flawed No Child Left Behind — but only if those states agreed to implement reform policies Duncan liked.
Republican and Democratic sources on Capitol Hill have said it is likely DeVos will be confirmed by the full Senate — but that isn’t guaranteed at the moment. Democrats plan to continue to push for her rejection, and stepped up the opposition on Tuesday with revelations that in written responses to questions from Democratic senators, she appears to have used several sentences and phrases from other sources without attribution — including from a top Obama administration civil rights official.
The fight over DeVos will continue to be pitched right up to the vote on the Senate floor — and if she is confirmed as education secretary, well beyond.