The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has released a statement on President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. In selecting Ms. DeVos, the statement begins, Mr. Trump “has chosen the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward since President Carter created a Cabinet-level Department of Education.” It then goes on to point out DeVos’ lack of “meaningful experience in the classroom” and to call out the fact that the “sum total of her involvement” in education “has been spending her family’s wealth in an effort to dismantle public education in Michigan.” This characterization refers to both the financial contributions she and her husband, Dick DeVos, have made to fund failed charter school initiatives in Detroit and to her work as a board member of the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP) and as chair of American Federation for Children’s Board of Directors. The AFT’s statement ends by pointing out that “Betsy DeVos is everything Donald Trump said is wrong in America—an ultra-wealthy heiress who uses her money to…push a special-interest agenda that is opposed by the majority of voters. Installing her in the Department of Education is the opposite of Trump’s promise to drain the swamp.”
In an op-ed in the New York Daily News, AFT President Randy Weingarten takes this criticism of Trump’s choice even further. Weingarten questions how someone like DeVos, whose “family has poured money into campaigns against marriage equality and [in support of] so-called gay conversion therapy efforts,” can be trusted to oversee the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, whose mission is to “ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence through vigorous enforcement of civil rights in our nation’s schools.” In addition to wondering how DeVos will fulfill that mission for LGBTQ students and their families, Weingarten also questions whether DeVos is the best person to protect the rights of students of color. After all, the “policies that have destabilized [Michigan] schools in high-poverty districts…serv[ing] large numbers of black and brown students” can be traced directly to DeVos’ leadership of and advocacy for the charter school movement.
Clearly, for those of us who care about quality public education, DeVos’ nomination poses a serious challenge, most especially for our colleagues in K-12, who will bear the brunt of the privatizing policies she will no doubt seek to enact. Interestingly, though, when it comes to both early childhood and higher education, DeVos is something of a cipher. As a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education puts it, “[I]t’s hard to find evidence of Ms. DeVos having taken any positions” at all regarding those areas of our educational system. In an attempt to figure out what some of her higher ed-related positions might be, the authors of the article spoke to a range of people, including personal friends, policy analysts, political allies and critics. Extrapolating from what they knew of her positions on K-12, this is some of what those people said:
- DeVos is likely to focus on streamlining the path from secondary to postsecondary education, and on community colleges as an important part of that process
- She is interested in issues of transparency and performance, especially in the area of work-force development
- Given her support for school choice, she will probably be friendlier than the current administration to the for-profit college industry
- She will almost certainly not advocate for student-loan forgiveness or tuition-free college
- She supports “right-to-work” and so will almost certainly not be a friend to teachers unions
Those of us in higher education, in other words, ought to be as concerned as our K-12 colleagues. We encourage you to keep yourselves informed about Ms. DeVos’ appointment and, if you would like to take action, to visit NYUST’s Member Action Center (MAC), where you can find information and resources for doing so.