Betsy Devos, our new Secretary of Education with no previous experience working in education, has been the center of criticism and outrage after being confirmed by Vice President Mike Pence’s unprecedented tie-breaking vote in the Senate’s 51-50 vote. Every Democrat voted “no” to her confirmation, as well as two Republicans and both Independents.
The Plattsburgh City School Board even voiced their disapproval of Devos as secretary of education and voted unanimously in favor of adopting a resolution opposed to Devos’ confirmation.
As reported by the Press Republican, School Board member Rod Sherman said, “This lady has a horrible history in Michigan for trying to put vouchers in place, which take money away from public schools, and we as a School Board have an obligation to make sure our finances are stable.”
The resolution added that Devos has demonstrated a long history of support for the elimination of local school boards and unregulated for-profit charter schools.
Charter schools are public schools that operate independent of school districts through contracts between state education officials and community leaders. They’re funded by local, state and federal tax dollars. Because they choose how they’re managed, some 13 percent are run by for-profit companies. They’re overseen by “authorizers,” which are entities approved by state legislature to bring charter schools into existence. Once a school is approved, authorizers are responsible for monitoring their performance, including academic results, financial well-being and appropriate use of public funds.
According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there are more than 6,800 public charter schools open across 42 states and the District of Columbia, educating nearly three million students.
Devos also supports school voucher programs, which can redirect public funding and use it for private and religious schools. Proponents argue vouchers improve public education by introducing competition. Or, as best said by Ohio Governor John Kasich: “We will improve the public schools if there’s a sense of competition. Just like a pizza shop in the town, if there’s only one and there’s not much pepperoni on it, you can call ‘til you’re blue in the face. But the best way to get more pepperoni on that pizza is to open up a second pizza shop, and that’s what’s going to improve our public schools.”
Now, if schools are to be treated as businesses, then surely some are going to fail, right?
Well, a 2015 investigation by Naples Daily News found that 119 Florida charter schools had closed since 2008, 14 of which had never finished their first school year due to failures by school operators and cracks in Florida law. Those closures displaced an estimated 14,000 students, many of whom had to shuffle back into public schools.
A yearlong investigation by the Detroit Free Press revealed that 38 percent of Michigan charter schools that received state academic rankings during the 2012-13 school year fell below the 25th percentile, while only 23 percent of traditional public schools fell below the 25th percentile. Yet, Michigan taxpayers contribute nearly $1 billion a year into charter schools, which aren’t often held accountable in how they spend taxpayer dollars.
In their investigation, the Free Press reported: Wasteful spending and double-dipping as well as board members, school founders and employees steering lucrative deals to themselves or insiders.
Schools were allowed to operate for years despite poor academic records and there were no state standards for who operates charter schools or how to oversee them. Devos, a billionaire, comes from a wealthy family who have donated generous sums of money to the GOP for decades. When Senator Bernie Sanders asked Devos during her confirmation hearing whether it was accurate that her family had contributed nearly $200 million to the Republican party over the years, she replied, “Between my entire family? That’s possible.”
Some of the senators who voted Devos into office are the same people who have received thousands of dollars from her and her family, which raises the question: Did she buy her way in?
Well, sort of.
Devos’ donations to the Republicans who voted for her are actually quite small when compared to the total of contributions they received. Devos’ family’s contributions have, however, helped build a strong relationship with the Republican party. Her confirmation can arguably be considered nothing more than stubborn partisan allegiance.
Senator Al Franken, D-Mn., asked his peers before the vote, “If we cannot set aside party loyalty long enough to perform the essential duty of vetting the president’s nominees, what are we even doing here?”
Through all the opposition Devos faced leading up to her confirmation, she still squeezed her way into office, though I wouldn’t count on the opposition to dissipate. On the morning of Feb. 10, her first public school visit was spoiled by protestors who wouldn’t allow her inside.
What you can, however, count on is the number of charter school openings, as well as the number of charter school closures. There’s looming risk for public schools and their funding. Devos’ inexperience and firm belief in charter schools may mean the continuation of students receiving poor quality education, while those in charge face little accountability.
Email Steve Levy at firstname.lastname@example.org