Why Trump’s pick for Education Secretary is a poor choice

Clara Sloan, Staff Reporter

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Of all of President Donald Trump’s cabinet picks, it is perhaps Betsy DeVos – his new education secretary – who has received the most criticism in being approved for the job.

On being nominated to the post in November, she was called “a brilliant and passionate education advocate” by Trump. But, her performance before a nomination committee in January made the news for all the wrong reasons.

In the weeks building up to her hearing, labour unions, rights groups and teaching organisations spoke out against her appointment.

So just how has DeVos proven to be unfit for the job?

Much of the controversy around Mrs DeVos focuses on her support of charter schools, which are publicly funded and set up by teachers, parents or community groups, outside the state school system.

The American Civil Liberties Union said her work in Michigan involved “elevating for-profit schools with no consideration of the severe harm done to traditional public schools” despite “overwhelming evidence” that charter schools were no more successful than their traditional counterparts.

She and her family have also campaigned, though unsuccessfully, for a loosening of the oversight of charter schools in Michigan, but it is unclear if this is a policy she would pursue further as education secretary.

Less hesitation toward charter schools, critics say, would allow them to pursue a creationist, evangelical agenda. The New York Times reported that she had told a meeting of Christian philanthropists in 2001 that education reform was a way to “advance God’s kingdom.” Suffice to say, secularists in the education department may now face a fierce battle against DeVos.

A Dec. 3 editorial from the Detroit Free Press expressed concerns in Michigan over her appointment.

“DeVos isn’t an educator, or an education leader,” it read. “She’s not an expert in pedagogy or curriculum or school governance. In fact, she has no relevant credentials or experience for a job setting standards and guiding dollars for the nation’s public schools.

“She is, in essence, a lobbyist – someone who has used her extraordinary wealth to influence the conversation about education reform, and to bend that conversation to her ideological convictions despite the dearth of evidence supporting them.”

One of the two Republican senators who said they could not support Mrs. DeVos, Susan Collins of Maine, said she was “concerned that Mrs. DeVos’ lack of experience with public schools will make it difficult for her to fully understand, identify and assist” challenges facing rural schools in particular.

During her confirmation hearing, she struggled to show she was familiar with the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act, a federal law that requires public schools to make accommodations for disabled students.  

A spokesperson for the American Association of People with Disabilities said it was “very concerned” that she seemed “unfamiliar with the IDEA and the protections it provides to students with disabilities”.

It was not the most striking moment of the session though – that was when DeVos, discussing whether or not to allow firearms in schools, noted that a Wyoming school might need a gun to defend against grizzly bears.

When it came to her confirmation, two Republican senators said they could not back her, leaving the vote tied at 50-50.

In the end, it was Vice-President Mike Pence who cast the deciding vote – one more Republican defector would have meant DeVos’ rejection.