How Trump's Pick for Education Secretary May Reignite the Education Wars

PHOTO: In this Nov. 19, 2016 file photo, President-elect Donald Trump stands with Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos in Bedminster, N.J., Nov. 19, 2016.PlayCarolyn Kaster/AP Photo
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Let the education wars begin.

Donald Trump's choice to lead the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, has the nation's teachers' unions preparing to re-enter battle over public education systems, a little over a year after a bipartisan education reform deal was reached on the Every Student Succeeds Act.

DeVos, a wealthy Republican donor and activist, has been a longtime champion for school choice in her home state of Michigan, where she has advocated in favor of vouchers and the expansion the state's charter schools.

While DeVos' admirers revere her as an effective disrupter who has put her own money into supporting school choice policies, her critics tie her to the checkered track record of Michigan's charter schools and see her advocacy for vouchers as a threat to public education.

DeVos' background, coupled with the president-elect's campaign proposal to redirect $20 billion in federal funds back to the states for use in voucher programs, has set the stage for a battle over the the nation's education system.

Who Is Betsy DeVos?

DeVos, 59, has been involved in the promotion school choice policies for several decades in Michigan.

She is is married to Dick DeVos, a son of billionaire Amway co-founder Richard DeVos. The two have used their wealth to influence the education debate in Michigan and have been active in state politics. Betsy DeVos spent several years as chairwoman of the state Republican Party, and her husband ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006.

In 2000 the DeVoses led a campaign to amend the Michigan Constitution to allow school vouchers in the state. The proposal failed.

Since that time, DeVos has put her focus primarily on promoting and expanding charter schools and is considered one of the architects of Detroit's charter school system.

She has helped found several education-related organizations to promote school choice policies, including the Alliance for School Choice, the Great Lakes Education Project and the American Federation for Children.

What Her Critics Say

Public education advocates and teachers' unions paint a bleak picture of the charter school system in Michigan that DeVos has taken a leading role to promote. Many view her support for vouchers, which allow government education funds to follow students to the public or private schools of their parents' choice, as a threat to public education.

The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, has labeled DeVos "the most anti-public-education nominee" in the history of the Department of Education and contends that DeVos wants to replace public education with a private system.

"She's enemy No. 1 to children and to having a viable public education system there to help all kids," said Weingarten. "She doesn't want kids to have more options. She wants no public school options. She just wants a private system."

According to excerpts from an advance copy of her confirmation hearing opening remarks, DeVos is expected to offer assurances of her commitment to public education, pledging that she "will be a strong advocate for great public schools" but also will express her continued support for "parents' right to enroll their child in a high quality alternative" if a traditional public school is not a good fit for the child.

The National Education Association, another leading teachers' union, similarly accuses DeVos of "undermin[ing] public education."

"She has consistently pushed a corporate agenda to privatize, deprofessionalize and impose cookie-cutter solutions to public education," NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia said in a statement.

Weingarten pointed to statistics on the state of charter schools in Michigan to make the case that DeVos has made things worse rather than better in Michigan education. She raises particular alarm at the high number of for-profit charter school operators as limiting transparency and accountability in the charter system.

"Eighty percent of the charters in Michigan are for profit. It's called the wild, wild West for a reason," Weingartern said. "Seventy-five percent of all schools in the state perform better than the state's charter schools."

According to a Detroit Free Press investigation of Michigan's charter schools published in 2014, "Thirty-eight percent of charter schools that received state academic rankings during the 2012–13 school year fell below the 25th percentile, [and] only 23 percent of traditional public schools fell below the 25th percentile."

Though Weingarten said the AFT supports effective charter schools as one part of the public education system, she said the high number of for-profit operators and a lack of transparency — a situation that she blamed on DeVos — have been a negative formula for Michigan's at-risk students. Weingarten specifically blames DeVos for killing a proposal for a school oversight commission that would have been run by the Detroit mayor's office.

"She fought for no accountability," Weingartern said in a speech at the National Press Club last week. "No accountability, even in cases like the Detroit charter schools that closed just days after the deadline to get state funding, leaving students scrambling to find a new school, but the charter operators still profiting."

What Her Supporters Say

Supporters of DeVos paint a far different picture of her record and the state of charter schools in Michigan. They accuse her critics of skewing data to argue that charter schools are underperforming traditional public schools Michigan.

Gary G. Naeyaert, the executive director of the Michigan-based Great Lakes Education Project, which was founded and bankrolled by Betsy and Dick DeVos, said, "While it's true that 38 percent of charters fall into the bottom 25 percent ... 85 percent of Detroit public schools fall into the bottom 25 percent."

Matt Frendewey of the American Federation for Children, which Betsy DeVos chaired until recently, takes issue with the criticism that she has opposed accountability in Detroit's charter schools.

"The only thing that she opposed was this unelected, mayoral-appointed commission that was designed to essentially bolster the schools that had been failing at the expense of charter schools," he said. "The whole reason school choice came about was because students were trapped in a failing system. It's all about holding the system accountable."

Jeanne Allen, the chairwoman and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, believes DeVos is the "right person" to tackle the "morass called the Department of Education" and said DeVos opposed the oversight commission because it would have put charters back under the control of the district from it was established as an alternative.

"She, as one of a group of advocates, said to the governor, 'This is insane. Why would we actually give control of charter schools back to the districts for which they were created to allow parents an option?'" Allen said. "And the governor told me, 'That's not what they told me was happening. Thanks for clarifying.' When you have the political weight of Betsy DeVos, that's what you're able to do."

A New Education War?

If DeVos' past is any indication of her possible future as the head of the Department of Education, her leadership is almost sure to reignite a fierce debate on education.

It's a fight that Weingarten believes would be counterproductive so soon after Republicans and Democrats came together in December 2015 to agree to the terms of the Every Student Succeeds Act — bipartisan legislation that she said had "no losers" and replaced the widely unpopular No Child Left Behind legislation.

"Really, reigniting these wars after we came to this consensus and solved programs?" she asked. "This was supposed to be the time to really roll up our sleeves and get this done, now that the policy piece was done."

But on the other side of the debate, Allen said that the education wars never really ended and that she welcomes DeVos to lead the fight for opening up more public and private school options in education.

"We've been fighting education wars for years. It doesn't matter how tepid we are — any suggestion of changing the status quo emits screams and howls from the traditional establishment," Allen said. "If we can't be controversial ... in debate about how to help our kids, then we should be out of business."