Betsy DeVos, the president elect’s choice for education secretary, has spent decades fighting to increase educational opportunities for all students through her philanthropic and advocacy work. This week, the former businesswoman and philanthropist will testify before the Senate Health, Education and Labor (HELP) Committee, answering questions and providing senators with a better sense of how she intends to run one of the biggest government agencies.
Her confirmation is not without controversy, however. Critics contend that she lacks the experience for the job and worry that she will enact reforms that will lead to the demise of public education.
To make sense of this all, here is what you need to know.
Betsy DeVos has spent a fortune fighting for parents and students
DeVos has literally spent millions of her own money to help parents, families and students mobilize to demand greater access to good schools. Thanks to her generosity, individuals and groups have been able to fight an educational status quo that is slow to act and continues to leave far too many students behind — particularly low-income, African American and Latino students.
Maria Salazar, a single mother and a native of Peru, was able to send her daughter to a high school of her choice thanks to DeVos’s efforts in helping to create a tax credit scholarship program in Arizona.
In a recent letter to her hometown paper, Salazar wrote: “I don’t claim to know Betsy DeVos personally but her work to provide opportunities is very personal to me.”
Lack of teaching experience is not a liability
Critics of Betsy DeVos are desperate to block her nomination. As the Wall Street Journal editorialized over the weekend, DeVos is one of the nation’s most successful education reformers. Thanks to her leadership and insight, supporters of school choice have been able to make great strides at both the state and the federal level.
This is why critics are looking to undermine her credibility by seizing on her lack of educational experience. But what critics fail to mention is that she has spent decades working in education policy circles, crisscrossing the country meeting with lawmakers, educators, parents and, most importantly, students to learn and apply lessons that are working. DeVos is no education policy novice.
Her lack of teaching in a classroom is a distraction by defenders of the status quo.
DeVos supports expanding charter schools that are popular with minority families
As Opportunity Lives has been reporting, many low-income families are sending their children to charter schools — public schools that operate with greater freedom and autonomy. Among those benefitting from this choice includes many African American and Latino families that are escaping crime-ridden and struggling public schools.
Recent polls confirm strong support among minority communities for greater parental choice in schooling. Polls like this reveal a deep disconnect among the advocacy groups that claim to represent minority communities and the parents and students that benefit from more choices.
Here’s the truth about DeVos’s support for charter schools in Michigan
Teachers’ unions and special interest groups are no fans of charter schools because the vast majority of those schools aren’t unionized. They also don’t like that charter schools operate with greater autonomy and freedom than their traditional public school counterparts.
This explains why critics are eager to attack DeVos’s support for charter school expansion in her home state of Michigan. But they are cherry picking numbers while failing to describe an alternative to charter schools that is failing to educate many students in the Great Lakes state.
“Detroit charters are low performing—only 19% of students are proficient in English—but they’re better than the alternative,” writes the Wall Street Journal editorial board. “Charter students in Detroit on average score 60% more proficient on state tests than kids attending the city’s traditional public schools. Eighteen of the top 25 schools in Detroit are charters while 23 of the bottom 25 are traditional schools.”
What’s the Government’s Role in Education? Listen for Betsy DeVos’s Answers
For decades, the federal government has been exerting greater ownership in crafting education policy. Educational achievement remains stagnant and according to the latest global surveys, most U.S. students are failing to keep pace in math and reading assessments, when compared to other countries.
Still, there is hope. A number of states are experimenting and pushing for increased choice, competition and transparency. In some places, this is yielding positive results.
Where does DeVos come down on the government’s role in education? There is a long to-do list to enact bold and sweeping reforms to shake up the educational status quo. How committed is DeVos to a devolving greater authority and responsibility to the states when it comes to education policy?
These are the central questions. Not her net worth or lack of experience teaching in a classroom. Look beyond the spin and the grandstanding of senators playing up before the television cameras and listen for the vital questions and answers.
Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter: @IzzyOrtega.