Betsy DeVos and Public Education

Elisabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVos, a prominent and wealthy Michigan Republican was appointed U.S. Secretary of Education on February 7, 2017, in a 50-50 confirmation vote in the Senate, with Vice President Pence casting the deciding vote to break the tie and confirm the appointment. Her appointment was strikingly contentious, due to her past extensive involvement with and support of for-profit, charter, and religious education, often at the expense of public schools which lose funds diverted to voucher and school choice programs. She remains a controversial figure in the education community.

 

According to the New York Times, DeVos has spent decades trying to steer money from public to charter schools. She opposes close oversight and performance standards being applied to for-profit schools, instead trusting in the free market and parental choice to insure school quality. Her influence, it is argued, was an important factor in the growth of many underperforming charter schools and increasing problems in the public school system in Detroit, where she had outsized influence as a Republican political operative and philanthropist and where she has strongly opposed moves to close failing charter schools and impose more accountability on them.

 

In her years as a Republican activist and wealthy philanthropist, she has become known as a canny political operative, characterized for being polite under pressure and reaching out for discussions to unions and other opponents, though she has also been widely criticized for her lack of knowledge of education policy and pedagogical theory. Although she paints herself as a reformer, she is widely perceived as hostile to public education.

 

One particularly controversial aspect of her tenure at the Education Department has been her unwinding of a special team focused on widespread problems with for-profit colleges, including DeVry Education Group. The team was unwound after DeVos appointed Julian Schmoke, a former dean at DeVry, to lead it, a move that many consider a conflict of interest for Schmoke, who should not be in a supervisory role on a team investigating his former employer. The team, set up after the collapse of the for-profit Corinthian Colleges, was investigating predatory practices and lack of educational standards, with students often incurring substantial debt loads with little to show in the way of employment or employable skills. A particular concern was use of tax monies and federal student loans for tuition payments to for-profit colleges acting as a de facto subsidy to private companies.

 

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