(Update: Adding reaction from Bush foundation)
Betsy DeVos is now confirmed as the U.S. education secretary. And it’s a big victory for … Jeb!
The U.S. Senate went ahead and approved DeVos on Tuesday — with Vice President Pence breaking a 50-50 tie — even though she has such little regard for the public education system that she once called it a “dead end.” Two Republicans were allowed by the Senate’s Republican leadership to break rank and vote with the Democrats — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine — without threats of vengeance, and so it became the first time that a vice president had to break a tie for a Cabinet nominee.
This is clearly a victory for DeVos; Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Education Committee who shepherded her nomination through the Senate; and President Trump, who nominated her. But as big a winner as any of them is Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who was thought to be the front-runner in the 2016 race for the Republican presidential candidate but who was soundly trounced — and often mocked — by Trump.
Yet Bush, at least on corporate education reform, the subject on which he has been a national leader, is now a big, big winner. No sooner had the tie been broken and the confirmation approved, Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education began tweeting individual thanks to senators who voted to approve her, such as:
Bush was the early leader of the corporate school reform movement — treating public schools as if they were for-profit businesses — turning Florida into a testing ground when he became governor of the state in 1999. He created a “Florida Formula” of school reforms that became a model for other states, including state “report cards” that assign letter grades to schools based largely on test scores and widespread school choice right after he became governor in 1999.
After he left office in 2007, he created the Foundation for Excellence in Education to carry on that work, holding annual summits and helping other states follow the formula. Also after he left office, the standardized testing system that he created in Florida led to a revolt by superintendents who said they had lost confidence in it. The state renamed and marginally changed the Common Core State Standards, which it had adopted with Bush’s encouragement, and the charter school sector that he embraced became marred by scandal.
DeVos has for years been extremely close to Bush, sitting on the board of his foundation and sharing a philosophy that the public education system in America is a monopoly in the clutches of teachers unions and must be liberated by competitive market forces. Bush refers to public school districts not as public school districts but as over 13,000 government-run monopolies run by unions.” DeVos, in the same paragraph in a 2015 speech, called the education system “a closed market,” “a monopoly” — and “a dead end.”
Their lack of regard for the traditional public education system is matched by their zeal for other educational options: charter schools, including those run by for-profit companies, and vouchers and voucherlike programs that use public dollars to pay for private and religious school tuition. DeVos and her family have donated substantial amounts of money to institutions and causes linked to the Christian right, including Christian schools.
Bush and DeVos say they believe public education has failed America and that families should have choices to escape traditional public schools they don’t like. Their critics say that philosophy is really part of a longtime attempt by conservatives to undermine public institutions and privatize public education. A number of school choice advocates came out against DeVos, saying that she doesn’t have enough knowledge about, or interest in improving, the traditional system, which educates the vast majority of America’s schoolchildren.
DeVos, incidentally, isn’t the only Bush ally who is now at the Trump Education Department. Among them are Josh Venable, a former aide to Bush at the foundation and who also worked on his failed campaign. Venable helped prepare DeVos for her Jan. 17 Senate confirmation hearing, which did not go well for her. She could not discuss key education issues, helping to spur the unprecedented opposition to her across the country. Andrew Kossack, who also worked with Bush at the foundation and was Pence’s commissioner of the Indiana Department of Revenue when Pence was governor, is now at the Education Department. Specific jobs will be settled soon now that DeVos is confirmed.
Incidentally, members of former president George W. Bush’s team helped advise the Trump team on education. Underlining the Bush connection to DeVos was the endorsement of her by Barbara Bush, Jeb’s mother, who wrote in an op-ed published in the Portland Press Herald that she had worked with DeVos on education issues:
I am enthusiastically endorsing Betsy DeVos to be our next secretary of education. Mrs. DeVos has a real compassion for children and a proven record of championing reforms to improve literacy and learning in our nation. I am confident that she will provide the leadership we sorely need to raise the bar on education in America and provide better opportunities for our most vulnerable students.