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Trump Names Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary: Nomination Draws Mixed Response from Legislators

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December 02, 2016 04:38 pm

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Last week, President-elect Donald Trump nominated Betsy DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist and school choice advocate, for U.S. Secretary of Education. During the presidential campaign, Trump promised to expand school choice options for students and proposed a $20 billion voucher program that would allow federal funds to follow students to private schools. His nomination of DeVos likely indicates he plans to pursue that school choice agenda.

“Betsy DeVos is a brilliant and passionate education advocate,” the president-elect said in a statement. “Under her leadership we will reform the U.S. education system and break the bureaucracy that is holding our children back so that we can deliver world-class education and school choice to all families.”

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) called her an “excellent choice” while House Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline (R-MN) said she is a “tireless advocate for ensuring every child has an opportunity to receive an excellent education and every parent has the ability to do what’s right for his or her child.”

DeVos, a former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, founded the American Federation for Children, a national advocacy organization that promotes school vouchers and scholarship tax credits. DeVos and her husband also pushed for the passage of Michigan’s charter school law in 1993 and, more recently, worked against legislative efforts to regulate charter schools in Detroit, according to Chalkbeat.

U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) seized on her work in Michigan to ask why Congress would “put someone who has spent her life trying to strip funding from public schools in charge of those very schools.” Murphy, who also serves on the Senate HELP Committee, acknowledged that President-elect Trump “deserves some degree of deference from the Senate” in approving his nominees, but said DeVos has to answer some “serious threshold questions” before her nomination is put up for a vote.

U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the Ranking Member on the Senate HELP Committee, likewise said she plans to scrutinize DeVos’s record closely and press her on how she plans to “ensure the safety and respect of all students, of all backgrounds, all across the country” in light of the “number of troubling statements” Trump made during the campaign concerning issues of civil rights and equality of opportunity.

The mixed response to DeVos stood in stark contrast to that of former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, whose nomination was praised by both political parties. “Among several outstanding nominations made by President-elect Obama, I believe Arne Duncan is the best,” Alexander said during Duncan’s confirmation hearing in January 2009.

DeVos’s nomination received a measured and mixed reception from members of the education community as well. Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), said that he and his members “are excited to get to know Secretary DeVos and her priorities for students across the country.”

By contrast, the presidents of the two national teachers’ unions condemned Devos’s nomination.

“Every day, educators use their voice to advocate for every student to reach his or her full potential. We believe that the chance for success of a child should not depend on winning a charter lottery, being accepted by a private school, or living in the right ZIP code,” said National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García. “Betsy DeVos has consistently worked against these values, and her efforts over the years have done more to undermine public education than support students. … By nominating Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration has demonstrated just how out of touch it is with what works best for students, parents, educators and communities.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, described DeVos as the “most ideological, anti-public education nominee” in the history of the U.S. Department of Education (ED). “In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America,” she added in her statement.

Meanwhile, several civil rights organizations have raised concerns that DeVos potentially could roll back the protections ED extended to gay and transgender students during President Barack Obama’s administration. They also expressed reservations that school choice alone cannot address educational inequities faced by traditionally underserved students and that expanding such programs could exacerbate those inequities.

The U.S. Senate must confirm DeVos before she officially can become Secretary of Education. Prior to the vote before the full Senate, the Senate HELP Committee will hold a hearing on her nomination, something that Alexander said he would “move swiftly” to do in January.

Kristen Loschert is editorial director at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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