Mitt Romney had a preposterous op-ed in the Washington Post over the weekend. He suggests that Betsy DeVos, a billionaire, is ideally qualified to be U.S. Secretary of Education because she is so rich she doesn’t stand to benefit from any kind of future employment in a public school.
Romney’s argument is that the One Percent ought to be in charge of making public education policy, because unlike the the rest of us, billionaires lack the bias that might be carried by somebody who needed work—as a schoolteacher, for example. While the rest of us might worry that Betsy DeVos lacks relevant experience as a public school student or public school parent or public school teacher, and lacks training in pedagogy or school administration, Romney believes her vast wealth is her best qualification for the job: “Essentially, it’s a debate 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… First, it’s important to have someone who isn’t financially biased shaping education. As a highly successful businesswoman, DeVos doesn’t need the job now, nor will she be looking for an education job later.”
Profiling DeVos in the Washington Post, Emma Brown describes the political giving of the DeVos family. In contrast to Mitt Romney, Brown explains that Betsy DeVos is biased: DeVos has a financial stake in a clear political agenda that has for decades been represented by her and her husband’s political giving. Brown reports that DeVos told Roll Call in 1997: “that she had decided ‘to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American values.”
Romney also claims there is substantial academic research proving that charter schools in Michigan—where Dick and Betsy DeVos have invested millions of dollars in lobbying against responsible state oversight of charters—are academically surpassing their public school counterparts. In December Stephen Henderson, editorial page director of the Detroit Free Press, penned a column about the very research Romney describes. Henderson contradicts Romney’s interpretation of the research. Comparing the academic record of Michigan’s charter schools and traditional public schools, Henderson reports that research conclusions are much more nuanced and complex: “For 20 years, DeVos and her family have funded a charter school lobby that protects the industry from reasonable oversight and accountability, in part, through gross exaggeration and fibs of omission about school research. In their telling, charter schools have achieved great success in Michigan and especially Detroit. They’ve transformed public education. But the data—even the data that DeVos’ lobby so often cites—tell a different story. They show that charter schools do not substantially outperform public schools, and even where they do, the difference is so slight that it’s difficult to draw sweeping conclusions about what it means. It’s another facet of DeVos’s unfitness for the job president-elect Donald Trump has nominated her to do. Research is a key component of the nation’s education infrastructure, and that research has been telling us for years that charter schools in Michigan have not yet delivered on their promises.”
In a column for Lafayette, Indiana’s Journal and Courier, Ed Eiler, Lafayette’s retired school superintendent, presents the strongest rationale for confronting Romney’s bizarre column as well as opposing Betsy DeVos’s political philosophy that glorifies school choice: “In his book, Justice, Michael Sandell makes the observation that, during the past 30 years, we have moved from being a market economy to a market society, where increasingly everything is being turned into a commodity and is for sale to the highest bidder. Sandell contends that when dealing with material goods, a market economy is a valuable and productive tool, but we should not trust markets with our civic lives. He observes that economists assume markets are inert and do not touch or taint the goods they exchange. This assumption may be true of material goods but may not be true for non-material goods and social practices related to education, health care, politics, law and civic life… The question is how do we want to live together? Do we want a society where everything is up for sale or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?”
Late last night, the Washington Post’s Emma Brown reported that the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s confirmation hearing on Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education has been delayed until Tuesday, January 17, because, “the Office of Government Ethics, which has said it is overwhelmed by vetting Trump’s nominees, has not yet completed its review of DeVos’s financial holdings and potential conflicts of interest.”
The delay means that DeVos’s hearing will not be jammed together on the same day as numerous other confirmation hearings along with a major press conference by the President-elect. The delay also gives those of us who believe Betsy DeVos is unqualified to be Secretary of Education a little more time to make our calls and encourage colleagues and friends to do so. Please continue to make phone calls to the offices of your Senators and to the offices of the Senate HELP Committee.
We must continue to raise questions about DeVos’s disdain for government and public service, her dogged belief in competition and marketplace school choice, and her distrust of the public school system that serves 50 million children across the United States. That’s the system the Secretary of Education is expected to oversee.
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