WASHINGTON — Casting her as the “antithesis” to public education, House Democrats — joined by the leaders of the nation’s two largest teacher unions — on Tuesday called for the Senate to block the nomination of Betsy DeVos as President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. secretary of education.
The Democratic lawmakers also announced the formation of a new “public education” caucus that will, among other things, oppose DeVos’ confirmation as head of the U.S. Department of Education.
Members of the new caucus include Congresswoman Alma Adams, (D-N.C.), a recently retired Bennett College art professor, who said while it’s important to have a secretary of education that is committed to making sure all students have “high access to quality and public education,” that DeVos doesn’t fit the bill.
“Unfortunately, President-elect Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has a long history of undermining public schools,” Adams said. “Betsy DeVos has advocated on behalf of the privatization of Michigan’s schools and placing students at the mercy of for-profit education.
“She’s used her immense … wealth to lobby against transparency and accountability measures that would keep for-profit schools in check and safeguard taxpayer dollars,” Adams said.
Adams said while not much is known about DeVos’ ideas on higher education or for-profit colleges, “we do know that she has an extensive record of working to privatize public education.”
Borrowing a phrase that Trump used to describe the election process during his campaign, Adams said the nation’s public school students and teachers cannot afford to have a secretary of education that will “rig the system” against public education.
Adams made her remarks Tuesday during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. The press conference was called in anticipation of a confirmation hearing for DeVos that was originally slated for Wednesday but has since been postponed until next Tuesday.
Some of the most scathing criticism against DeVos came from Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, who called DeVos “the most supremely unqualified nomination for secretary of education in the history of secretaries of education.”
“If she is confirmed, she will be the historic first secretary of education who has never had any experience in a public school, not as a student, not as a parent, not as a school board member, not as a policymaker with some responsibility for making sure that that public school has what it needs to serve children,” Garcia said.
“Her experience is as an extremely wealthy lobbyist and big-time political donor,” Garcia said. “That is what Donald Trump believes qualifies her to be our secretary of education.”
Garcia said DeVos’ track record of advocacy for vouchers and for-profit charter schools in her home state of Michigan suggests that she will seek to take funds from public schools and steer them toward vouchers and for-profit charter schools on a much grander scale as secretary of education.
A Trump transition team spokeswoman provided a different assessment.
“Betsy DeVos supports great schools, in all forms — public, private, magnet, virtual, home school and other learning environments,” the spokeswoman said. “She’s looking forward to her confirmation hearing and discussing her many years of work with and for parents, who simply want to make educational choices that best meet the unique needs of their children.”
Dr. Howard Fuller, a school choice pioneer in Milwaukee, a DeVos ally and distinguished professor of education and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, was unmoved by the Democrats’ anti-DeVos diatribes.
“The same criticisms have been leveled at me because I support vouchers, because I support charters schools,” said Fuller, whom Diverse reached en route to Washington, where he said he had planned to support DeVos at her since-canceled Senate nomination hearing.
“And so I would expect people who oppose those kinds of things to be opposed to Betty because she supported those policies and programs as long as I’ve known her,” said Fuller, who is a founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a group that advocates for parental choice.
“All I can speak to is what my experience has been with her,” Fuller said. “She does believe that low-income and working class parents should have choices. Because she does support that, for many people that means that she’s trying to dismantle public education.”
Garcia said DeVos has “used her influence and muscle of her money to expand and deregulate school privatization.”
“If she is confirmed, she is going to have more than influence. She is going to have political power to act,” Garcia said. “She is going to be in charge of millions and millions of public dollars. Why in the world would we believe she is going to do anything different than we saw her do in Michigan?”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, noted how DeVos and her family spent $1.4 million in less than two months to “get rid of a compromise that would have moved students forward in Detroit.”
Weingarten was referring to news reports that indicate the DeVos family contributed that amount to Michigan Republicans after they scrapped a provision in an education package that would have placed Detroit charter schools under the same authority as public schools in the city.
“What’s happening in Michigan? Eighty percent of charter schools are for-profit, half the charters in Michigan do worse than public schools throughout the country,” Weingarten said, without providing the reference for her statistics. “The kids in Michigan have suffered because of her advocacy.”
The newly established House Public Education Caucus will be a “platform and a rallying point to support and defend public school students and teachers here in Congress throughout the entire Trump Administration,” a spokesman from the office of U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, (D-WI), said in a statement to Diverse.
“Right now we are focused on our continued effort to rally students, teachers and advocates against DeVos’ nomination,” he said. He also said the caucus would be a “visible and vocal voice for students and teachers on a range of issues.”
The spokesman also said caucus members are “hopeful” to make the caucus bipartisan “in the near future.”
Thus far, besides Adams and Pocan, caucus members include: Democratic Reps. Mark Takano, of California; Rosa DeLauro, of Connecticut; Bonnie Watson Coleman, of New Jersey; Sheila Jackson Lee, of Texas; Suzanne Bonamici, of Oregon; Raul Grijalva, of Arizona; Jared Polis, of Colorado; Mark DeSaulnier, of California, and Jamie Raskin, of Maryland.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.