Robert C. Pianta is dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.
I am disappointed to have to say that Betsy DeVos should not be the next Secretary of Education.
As an academic, dean of a school of education, and educator who has advocated for good charter schools, who can see the value of empowering parents through school choice and the promise of vouchers to enable that empowerment, and who believes our education system is still deeply in need of reform, I had initially approached the nomination of Mrs. DeVos with an open mind.
But I was deeply dismayed by her performance in her confirmation hearing. It was, in a word, disqualifying.
The concerns about her performance and what that says about her suitability for the job are by now widely known, particularly her inability to correctly answer questions in exchanges with Senators Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) regarding student growth. But while the answers she could not give to basic questions about education were troubling enough, I was genuinely alarmed by the answers she did give.
On two critically important areas of responsibility for the Secretary of Education — protecting the rights of all students, particularly the most vulnerable students, and on accountability — time after time Mrs. DeVos failed her test. She reflexively offered to devolve all decision-making to the states, even in the face of experience that shows this would lead to poor student outcomes and potentially more youth at risk and left behind.
It is true that states and districts actually deliver education in America, but the federal government plays a unique and important role, particularly in guaranteeing equal rights to all students. For our education system to work well on behalf of all kids, we need both the states and the federal government to play their roles and to play them well.
Yet time after time during her hearing, DeVos backed away from any federal responsibility to protect the rights of all students — for students with disabilities, students of color, and student survivors of campus sexual assault. The law that drives the federal role in education, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, is at its heart a civil rights law, seeking to guarantee equity in educational opportunities for all. A qualified nominee for secretary of education must believe that.
The federal government also plays an important role in accountability: Holding schools, systems, and educators accountable for providing equal opportunities and for student outcomes. For the federal government to back away from that role would do real harm to kids. And to suggest that it is okay for public schools to be held accountable, but that private schools — or any other educational option that accepts taxpayer funding — would not be held equally accountable is simply unacceptable. It is only fair to hold all alternatives to the same standards.
We see why this is such an important issue in the record of the efforts DeVos herself championed in Michigan, where a lack of oversight and accountability has led to terrible results for kids. Accountability for all and rigorous oversight protects all students. And it is essential to truly reform our education system; it is what enables systematic evaluation and ongoing improvement of innovative approaches to achieve better student outcomes. A secretary of education should believe this.
If the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions were to move her nomination forward despite her disastrous performance, and if Senators were to overlook what it revealed about her attitudes and awareness of education policy and the unique role of the department she wishes to lead, her confirmation would set our reform efforts back years. The battle that has emerged over Betsy DeVos has again brought out the worst tendencies on both sides of the education wars, and after all we’ve seen and heard, a confirmation now would only guarantee that we remain trapped behind our ideological battle lines, locked in unproductive debates, without the leadership from the U.S. Department of Education that can work with educators and with states to champion real reform.
We can do better as a nation. Our kids require it. We should all demand it.