Public School Advocates Push Back Betsy DeVos
By Ruth Conniff
Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, is the only member of the incoming administration so far to have her confirmation hearing delayed.
“She may be the first casualty in the high-rise they’re building on the swamp here in Washington,” says Representative Mark Pocan of Madison, Wisconsin.
On Tuesday, January 10, Pocan and other supporters of public schools held a press conference to announce a new House Public Education Caucus—and to express their opposition to Devos.
“The fact that out of nine hearings only one was delayed this week, and that was DeVos, says something,” Pocan said in a phone interview after the event. “Whether it’s because of the outcry from local districts or the concerns raised about her conflicts of interest.”
DeVos’s longtime lobbying for school vouchers, her “antipathy to public education,” as American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten put it, her ties to anti-gay groups, and her role in the destruction of the public school system in Detroit, are just some of the reasons she worries supporters of public schools.
DeVos has been a supporter of using public money to cover private school students’ tuition, including in Wisconsin, the first state to try school vouchers. “We’ve been a laboratory for these tests, and I can tell you they have failed miserably,” Pocan said at the press conference, citing shoddy, unregulated voucher schools and private-school families who now receive a taxpayer-financed subsidy for tuition, even though their children never attended public school. He added,
"I don't want to see this happen across the country."
Pocan and Mark Takano, Democrat of California, a former teacher, had been talking about creating a House Public Education Caucus for some time. But the project took on more urgency when Trump nominated DeVos.
Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the presidents of the two largest teachers unions in the nation (AFT and NEA), attended Tuesday’s launch of the Public Education Caucus, and pointed out that Congress just passed a sweeping, bipartisan law that protected federal funding for public education.
Trump and DeVos are poised to roll back that bipartisan consensus on supporting public schools. “They are going to reignite the education wars,” said Randi Weingarten.
In a Press Club speech on January 9, Weingarten called DeVos “the antithesis of what our kids need,” saying Trump’s chosen education secretary is poised to “bankrupt, destabilize, and disrupt schools” across the country. Weingarten appealed to DeVos to visit public schools across the country that are serving millions of kids well.
K12 education was not a hot topic in the campaigns of 2016—in fact, it barely came up at all. But the politics of public education might be changing, says Pocan, who described himself as “shocked” by how passionate his colleagues were on the issue.
“We are advocates because this is the great equalizer,” he said after the press conference. “You have to have equal access to strong public education to have real opportunity.” Public schools, he says, turns out to be a sleeper issue that attracts passionate support from a diverse group of members of Congress.
“People fundamentally support public schools. We see that in referendum after referendum in Wisconsin—where people are voting to fund their school districts,” Pocan points out.
"We know over 90 percent of people still attend public schools in this country. If you don't have a great public education system, you don't really have equal opportunity."
The Trump Administration and members of Congress will be hearing from some of the 90 percent over the next week, in the lead-up to DeVos’s rescheduled confirmation hearing.