Betsy DeVos’s Senate confirmation hearing last week was, by most accounts, a train wreck. The education secretary nominee aired extreme views that alarmed public education advocates, but she also showed an unfamiliarity with basic policy issues. So it came as no surprise when Democrats demanded a second hearing for the billionaire Republican donor, ostensibly because they want more time to vet her potential conflicts of interest. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who chairs the education committee, denied their request. On Tuesday, he took to Medium to accuse Senate Democrats of “grasping for straws.”
“Few Americans have done as much to help low-income students have a choice of better schools,” wrote Alexander, who served as education secretary under President George H.W. Bush. “She is on the side of our children. Her critics may resent that, but this says more about them than it does about her.”
For an education expert widely regarded as thoughtful on these issues, Alexander’s article is remarkably disingenuous, complete with straw-man arguments and unfounded characterizations of the Democratic opposition to DeVos. It wasn’t the only such piece this week. Shikha Dalmia, a policy analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation, on Monday published a column in The Week titled “The foolish Democratic crusade against Betsy DeVos.” While acknowledging that “DeVos did not distinguish herself during her confirmation hearing with her knowledge of the finer points of education policy,” Dalmia called it a “galling ... confirmation charade.”
The normalization of DeVos and mischaracterization of her opponents is what’s truly galling. DeVos’s defenders should at least grapple honestly with why the left—and even Democratic centrists in the “school reform” movement—object to a nominee who represents the worst of the “school choice” movement and is a force for privatizing a vital public institution in America. It’s perfectly reasonable to be alarmed about her nomination, given the demonstrated failure of the policies she supports.
Alexander’s defense of DeVos is cloaked in an expressed concern for low-income students. “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,” he wrote, and later: “Would [her critics] be happier if she had spent her money denying children from low-income families choices of schools?”
They’d be happier if she supported programs that help all children get a better education. But as education reporter Dana Goldstein recently explained in Slate, that’s hardly what vouchers do:
Recent studies of voucher programs in Louisiana and Ohio found that students who use vouchers to attend a private school score, on average, lower on standardized tests than demographically similar students who do not use vouchers. In New Orleans, two years after winning a private school voucher, the average student had lost 13 points of learning in math.... Many of the private schools that did accept vouchers had experienced previous enrollment declines, indicating they were unpopular with parents who could afford to pay tuition on their own.
It’s not just Louisiana and Ohio either. “Although some studies found that students using vouchers had higher test scores than their public school peers, in general, peer-reviewed studies found that the performance of voucher students does not differ significantly from that of public school students,” Jennifer Pribble and Jennifer L. Erkulwater, political science professors at the University of Richmond, recently wrote in the Post. Voucher programs also routinely violate the separation of church and state, using taxpayer dollars to fund the teaching of creationism.
Alexander also asserts that Democrats oppose DeVos because “she supports charter schools,” but the Democratic Party under President Barack Obama—much to the chagrin of critics on the left—joined Republicans in supporting charters (which are publicly funded but independently operated). Alexander described charters as “public schools with fewer government and union rules so that teachers have more freedom to teach and parents have more freedom to choose the schools,” and that’s how many Democrats see them, too. Only recently did a few of their key party stakeholders— namely the NAACP and Black Lives Matter—call for a charter moratorium, saying many are under-regulated, unaccountable, drain funds from traditional public schools, and lack civil rights protections.
DeVos has helped to give the charter movement a bad name, bankrolling some of the worst “Wild West”-style versions of these schools. “Largely as a result of the DeVos’ lobbying, Michigan tolerates more low-performing charter schools than just about any other state,” Stephen Henderson, edit of the Detroit Free Press’ editorial page, wrote recently. Without the kind of strong oversight that’s common among charters elsewhere in the country, the state “lacks any effective mechanism for shutting down, or even improving, failing charters.” As a result, “We’re a laughingstock in national education circles, and a pariah among reputable charter school operators, who have not opened schools in Detroit.”
So it’s not that Democrats disagree with DeVos’s support for charters. It’s that she supported some of the least successful and accountable. And it’s that she and Trump are now poised to implement his unprecedented $20 billion federal voucher plan, an even worse privatization policy that won’t benefit low-income children as its proponents say.
Dalmia’s defense of DeVos deals less with her policies and more with Democratic politicking—and even still, it fails to convince. Consider the incredibly low bar Dalmia sets for the nominee:
Despite what you may have heard from hyperventilating liberals, DeVos is among Trump’s more sober Cabinet choices. She never joined his cheerleading squad like Housing and Urban Development nominee Ben Carson. And she was certainly not part of his inner circle hatching plans to court white voters by demonizing immigrants and minorities, like Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general. In fact, she declared relatively early that Trump did not “represent the Republican Party” and never retracted that statement.
That DeVos isn’t as empty-headed as Carson or racist as Sessions is hardly high praise, and that DeVos distanced herself from candidate Trump is moot considering she now wants to work for him. Dalmia’s further kneecaps her argument by admitting that DeVos “was often tongue-tied and crumbled under questioning,” which she partly blames on Democrats who “came turbo-charged to play gotcha.” There’s a kernel of truth to this; senators in the minority party commonly use confirmation hearings to grandstand on pet issues and to rattle nominees. So why wasn’t DeVos prepared for such a grilling? That’s the greater concern, and the likely answer is that she simply doesn’t know enough about education policy.
Dalmia only addresses such policy at the end of her column:
[T]he fact of the matter is that there are two education paradigms in this country — the old one that favors public accountability via the political process and the new one that favors parental accountability via the market process. Democrats are wedded to the first one for ideological reasons — despite its 200-year history of failing poor kids — and simply won’t give the second a chance. That’s why they also declared war on DeVos for shielding Detroit’s charter schools from being taken over by politicians. Incidentally, these charters, while far from perfect, have shown much better results than comparable public schools, as three independent studies, including by Stanford’s CREDO, have shown.
It’s true that Stanford’s research shows charters with somewhat better results. But prominent DeVos critic Douglas N. Harris—a Brookings Institution fellow, Tulane University economics professor, and founding director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans—recently argued at Education Next that there are multiple problems with taking this assessment at face value:
First, given the lack of oversight in Detroit and evidence from other cities that some charter schools cherry-pick their preferred students, these results may make Detroit’s charter schools look better than they are. There is no way the CREDO analysis, or really almost any analysis, could account for this. If it’s happening, then the charter effects on achievement are inflated.
Second, given the potential concerns about schools cherry-picking students and other concerns with high-stakes testing, it’s worth looking at other evidence on academic achievement. Among the 21 mostly low-performing urban districts participating in the urban NAEP test in recent years, Detroit experienced growth that was below the group average growth, even though many of these districts were not undergoing any major governance reforms. This reinforces concerns that the CREDO results may reflect cherry-picking.
His full piece addresses DeVos defenders and proves her Michigan model is among the least effective ways to reform a school system.
Democrats won’t get a second confirmation hearing on DeVos, but they did manage to buy some time. The education committee vote on DeVos was delayed to January 31, to allow senators to digest the Office of Government Ethics report on her finances and potential conflicts of interest. There is no suspense here: DeVos’s nomination will be confirmed. She will be America’s secretary of education. But at least now Americans are better acquainted with her dangerous ideas for overhauling the country’s public education system, and can begin strategizing how to thwart her.