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  • Opposition grows to Senate confirmation of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education nominee 14 Jan 2017 | 1:46 pm

    Date Published: 
    January 10, 2017
    Valerie Strauss

    Public education was not much of an issue during the 2016 presidential campaign — but it sure is now as opposition grows to the Senate confirmation of Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s education secretary  nominee, who once called the U.S. traditional public school system a “dead end.”

    The confirmation hearing by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions had been set for Wednesday, but late Monday it was postponed until Jan. 17, with panel leaders releasing a statement saying the date was changed “at the request of the Senate leadership to accommodate the Senate schedule.” They did not note that Democrats had been pushing for a delay because an ethics review of DeVos has not been completed. Matt Frendewey, national communications director of the American Federation for Children, which DeVos founded, said in an e-mail, “It’s shameful that Democrats continue to play partisan politics with hollow attempts to disrupt what’s always been a bipartisan process.”

    DeVos, a leader in the movement to privatize the U.S. public-education system, has quickly become a lightning rod in the education world since her nomination by Trump in November 2015.

    Supporters say that as education secretary she would work to expand the range of choices that parents have in choosing a school for their children and that she is dedicated to giving every child an opportunity to succeed. One of them is Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who heads the committee that will vote on her nomination. He issued a statement on Tuesday saying that he had met with DeVos and that he knew that she will “make an excellent secretary of education” and “impress the Senate with her passionate support for improving education for all children.”

    Her critics say that her long advocacy for vouchers and her push for lax regulation of charter schools reveals an antipathy to public education; they point to an August 2015 speech in which she said that the traditional public education system  is a “dead end” and that “government truly sucks.”

    Thousands of people have signed petitions, started Twitter campaigns and called congressional offices urging that DeVos not be confirmed. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), expressing concern about the nomination, sent DeVos a long list of questions she wants answered, and the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association sent a letter to Warren — who sits on the confirmation committee — expressing its concern about her nomination, saying in part:

    Both President-elect Trump and Ms. DeVos are strong supporters of public charter schools, and we are hopeful they will continue the bipartisan efforts of the Clinton, Bush and Obama Administrations to promote the continued expansion of high quality charters while pursuing reforms that will strengthen traditional public schools.
    But we are concerned about media reports of Ms. DeVos’ support for school vouchers and her critical role in creating a charter system in her home state of Michigan that has been widely criticized for lax oversight and poor academic performance, and appears to be dominated by for-profit interests.

    Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who has worked alongside DeVos on some school reform issues, said in a December interview with the 74, a news website, that he had has “serious” issues with her confirmation.

    And a coalition of more than 200 national nonprofit organizations on Monday sent a letter (see text below) to the Senate Education Committee accusing DeVos of seeking “to undermine bedrock American principles of equal opportunity, nondiscrimination and public education itself.”  The letter was sent by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, composed of groups including the NAACP, the National Urban League, a variety of labor unions, and the League of Women Voters.  Teach For America is a member, as is the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Sierra Club. (You can see the complete list of members here.)

    The two major teachers unions are also working against her confirmation, mobilizing teachers to oppose her nomination. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, gave a speech Monday saying in part: “Betsy DeVos lacks the qualifications and experience to serve as secretary of education. Her drive to privatize education is demonstrably destructive to public schools and to the educational success of all of our children.”

    There is a push, too, by her supporters to persuade the education panel to confirm her as education secretary, which seems likely despite the outcry against her.

    Twenty Republican governors, for example, sent a letter to Alexander, saying that Trump had “made an inspired choice to reform federal education policy and allow state and local policymakers to craft innovative solutions to ensure our children are receiving the skills and knowledge to be successful in the world and modern workforce.”

    Mitt Romney, a DeVos supporter, wrote  in a Washington Post op-ed that her nomination by Trump had “reignited the age-old battle over education policy.” He said that the debate is “between those in the education establishment who support the status quo because they have a financial stake in the system and those who seek to challenge the status quo because it’s not serving kids well.” (Translation: DeVos opponents are self-serving and DeVos and her supporters are thinking about the kids.)

  • Trump’s Pick for Education Could Face Unusually Stiff Resistance 14 Jan 2017 | 1:44 pm

    Date Published: 
    January 12, 2017
    Kate Zernike

    Nominees for secretary of education have typically breezed through confirmation by the Senate with bipartisan approval.

    But Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald J. Trump’s choice for the post, is no typical nominee. She is a billionaire with a complex web of financial investments, including in companies that stand to win or lose from the department she would oversee. She has been an aggressive force in politics for years, as a prominent Republican donor and as a supporter of steering public dollars to private schools.

    Her wealth and her politics seem likely to make her confirmation hearing unusually contentious, and possibly drawn out.

    The hearing, which was originally scheduled for Wednesday of this week, was postponed until Tuesday after Democrats complained she had not completed an agreement with the independent Office of Government Ethics that outlined a plan to deal with potential conflicts of interest. The ethics office has said it has not completed its review of Ms. DeVos, which is required before the office can make any agreement. A spokesman for Ms. DeVos said she had responded to a first round of questions from the office last weekend.

    On Thursday, Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the committee that will hold the hearing, said she and Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the panel’s Republican chairman, “have some concerns about missing information” on the financial disclosure forms that Ms. DeVos has filed with the Senate. Ms. Murray would not specify what they were looking for, because those disclosures are not public, but said they had asked Ms. DeVos for additional information. Ms. Murray said she had “pushed very hard” not to hold the hearing until Ms. DeVos had completed her agreement with the ethics office.

    “This is a candidate with extremely complicated financial dealings,” the senator said. “We have to know, if there are conflicts of interests, how those are going to be resolved. If we don’t have that, it’s incumbent on all of us to say we cannot vote for that.”

    Some Republican committee leaders, including Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who is chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, have said they will hew to a tradition of not holding hearings until the ethics office signs off on the nominee.

    But a spokeswoman for Mr. Alexander said his panel — the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — had “no rules” about a need for an ethics review, and that the chairman intended to hold the hearing on Tuesday regardless.

    Mr. Alexander also said he would limit senators on the panel — 12 Republicans and 11 Democrats — to five minutes of questions each, after opening statements by him and Ms. Murray.

    His office noted that Rod Paige, President George W. Bush’s first education secretary, had a hearing eight days before his ethics review was complete. But Mr. Paige, a school superintendent when he was nominated, did not have nearly the same wealth or financial investments as Ms. DeVos.

    Mr. Alexander’s office said the committee would not hold a vote on Ms. DeVos’s nomination until her ethics review was complete.

    That could take awhile. In a letter to Ms. Murray about the DeVos nomination, the ethics office said on Monday that “multiple rounds of questions and revisions are usually needed before a report can be finalized,” because of the complexity of financial disclosure rules. And some nominees “find it difficult to untangle” their investments quickly. So the vetting process “can take weeks,” the office wrote, “and, in the case of extremely wealthy individuals, sometimes months.”

    Democrats have repeatedly noted that Penny Pritzker, a billionaire real estate entrepreneur who became the commerce secretary during President Obama’s second term, took six months to complete her ethics agreement.

    Ms. DeVos and her husband have a larger fortune, estimated at $5 billion.The Windquest Group, their investment firm, has holdings in many companies that invest in other interests such as Social Finance, which refinances student loans — a potential conflict, given the federal government is the biggest student lender.

    Ms. DeVos also lists herself as a director of the RDV Corporation, which similarly invests in companies with education products, including digital textbooks and online charter schools.

    Unlike most past secretaries, Ms. DeVos has never been an educator or overseen a state education agency. She did not attend public schools, or send her children to them.

    Her primary involvement in education has been as a benefactor and board member for groups that advocate steering taxpayer dollars away from public schools in the form of vouchers to help families attend private and religious schools.

    In her home state, Michigan, she pushed and defended a charter school law that is lax compared with policies in other states. She consistently fought legislation that would stop failing charter schools from expanding, andargued to shut down the troubled Detroit public school system and use the money saved to send students to charters or private schools.

    A Republican group pushing for Ms. DeVos’s confirmation, America Rising Squared, has flooded reporters with testimonials from supporters and politicians who say Ms. DeVos is in line with “mainstream” Americans in her support of school choice. That group, and one calling itself Friends of Betsy DeVos, insist that the opposition to her nomination is funded by teachers’ unions that want to deny poor families a way out of failing schools.

    But school choice means different things to different people. Many educators and groups that support charter schools — which are public — do not support vouchers, which steer public money away from public schools by giving families money to spend on private school tuition.

    So teachers’ unions have opposed her nomination, but so, too, have organizations that have fought unions.

    The main association of charter schools in Massachusetts, for example, which is generally considered to have the nation’s best charters, sent a letter to the state’s senior senator, Elizabeth Warren, who sits on the committee that will hold the DeVos hearing. The letter expressed concern about Ms. DeVos’s support for vouchers and loose accountability in Michigan, which it said would “reduce the quality of charter schools across the country.”

    Mr. Trump has promised to steer $20 billion in federal education funds to vouchers, and Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-charter organization, said he was worried that theDepartment of Education would take the money from Title I funds, which go to public schools serving the poorest students.

    Other groups have noted Ms. DeVos’s millions of dollars in political contributions to Republican senators who will vote on her nomination, insisting that they recuse themselves from any vote on her. Her supporters have countered that Democrats who receive money from teachers’ unions should recuse themselves, as well.

  • Massachusetts charter school advocates opposing President-elect Trump's education pick Betsy DeVos 14 Jan 2017 | 1:42 pm

    Date Published: 
    January 11, 2017
    Phil Demers

    The Bay State's biggest fans of charter schools are refusing to support the billionaire and aggressive charter school advocate President-elect Donald Trump has chosen to serve as U.S. education secretary.

    Massachusetts Charter Public School Association made a political statement when its director Marc Kenen this week mailed U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren a letter criticizing Betsy DeVos' record on promoting quality education, the Associated Press reports.

    "We're very concerned that if the federal government lowers the standards for charter schools, it would have a negative impact on Massachusetts charter schools," Kenan said, according to text quoted in The Boston Herald.

    MCPSA represents 70 Bay State charters.

    Numerous reports have presented the charter school system DeVos helped shape in her state, Michigan, as lax in oversight and providing sub-par education to students, according to the AP.

    Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wrote an editorial in The Washington Post supporting DeVos, calling the nominee "smart, dynamic, no nonsense and committed" and touting her record in Michigan. 

  • The Coming Crusade Against Public Education 14 Jan 2017 | 1:41 pm

    Date Published: 
    January 13, 2017
    Zoe Carpenter

    Betsy DeVos, whose nomination for secretary of education will be reviewed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on Tuesday, has never taught in a classroom. She’s never worked in a school administration, nor in a state education system, nor has she studied pedagogy. She’s never been to public school, and neither have her children. She has no record on higher education, except as an investor in the student-loan industry, which the Department of Education oversees. As Massachusetts Senator (and HELP Committee member) Elizabeth Warren wrote recently, there is “no precedent” for an education secretary with DeVos’s lack of experience in public education.

    What DeVos lacks in expertise she’s made up in money. The daughter of auto-parts magnate Edgar Prince, DeVos married Amway heir Dick DeVos, and together the DeVoses have given some $200 million to conservative organizations and politicians—including nearly $1 millionto 21 of the senators who will vote on her nomination—with particular devotion to the cause of privatizing public education. DeVos is not coy about the power of her pockets: She wrote in 1997 that she had decided “to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point…. We do expect some things in return.”

    DeVos has been deeply involved in education—as a lobbyist and philanthropist—since the early 1990s, particularly in her home state, Michigan, where she’s pushed to expand charter schools and to implement a voucher system that would funnel public dollars to private schools. DeVos adheres to the idea that free-market competition between schools will produce the best outcome for students. “The more of a ‘marketplace’ we have for education, the more, I think, the better,” she said in a 2015 interview. In another speech that year, shereferred to public education as a “dead end,” and said that “government really sucks.”

    But DeVos is not simply a free-market ideologue: She has also argued for education reform as a way to advance a Christian worldview. Like her father, DeVos has backed a number of right-wing religious organizations. During a convening of wealthy Christians in 2001, DeVoslikened debate about public education to a religious battlefield, and described her work to promote school choice as a crusade to “advance God’s Kingdom” and to secure “greater Kingdom gain.” In the year prior to those remarks, the DeVoses spent more than $2 millionbacking a school-voucher referendum that would have permitted Michigan parents to pay tuition at religious schools with public money. The measure failed decisively—but soon DeVos may have a national platform from which to attack the separation of church and state. (Donald Trump campaigned on a proposal to spend $20 million on a federal voucher program, though there are several obstacles to that plan.)

    Publicly, DeVos talks less about serving God than about improving quality and equity in education. But there’s little evidence that the reforms she’s fought for have improved Michigan’s schools. In 1993, DeVos helped to advance a bill that opened up Michigan to the charter-school industry. Since then she’s advocated—successfully—to eliminate a cap on the number of charters operating in the state, and to block measures to improve oversight. As a result Michigan now funnels $1 billion in taxpayer dollars to the privately operated schools, which mostly have failed to outperform traditional public schools. In spite of the rapid expansion of charter networks, many children in the poorest neighborhoods of Detroit still live in an education desert.

    Eighty percent of the state’s charters are operated for profit, and, according to a 2014investigation by the Detroit Free Press, have committed a “range of abuses” including misuse of public money. Thanks to Michigan’s lax oversight laws, almost anyone can open a charter school—even operators with track records of failure—and schools that waste state money or demonstrate poor academic performance are hard to shut down. Former Michigan schools superintendent Tom Watkins, a charter advocate himself, told the Free Press, “in a number of cases, people are making a boatload of money, and the kids aren’t getting educated.”

    DeVos’s record is so extreme that her nomination has made some allies of the charter movement queasy, along with teachers’ unions and other public-school advocates. The Massachusetts Charter Public School Association wrote to Senator Warren this week to express the association’s “concern” with DeVos, on account of her recent efforts to kill legislation to provide more oversight over Michigan’s charters. More than 200 national groups comprising the -he Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights sent a separate letter opposing her confirmation because of her efforts to “undermine bedrock American principles of equal opportunity, nondiscrimination and public education itself.” Others, including Senator Warren, are just as concerned about DeVos’s lack of a record on critical issues overseen by the Department of Education—about where she stands on re-privatizing the federal student-loan program, for instance; access to pre-kindergarten; or punitive discipline.

    Republicans have rushed DeVos’s nomination along, and may make a complete evaluation impossible. The hearing was postponed after Democrats complained that an ethics review of DeVos’s conflicts of interest had not been completed (at the time of this writing, it still hasn’t been), and Senator Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the HELP committee, said Thursday that she still has “some concerns about missing information” on DeVos’s financial disclosure forms. Meanwhile, according to The New York Times, committee chairman Lamar Alexander has decided to limit fellow committee members’ questions to five minutes. In the end it’s likely that DeVos will be confirmed. For public-school advocates, the only small, good thing to come of her nomination may be a more critical conversation about what has until now been a bipartisan project to privatize public education.

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