Betsy DeVos, Education, And The Future Of Our School System

Early childhood education
Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, sits with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., before the start of their meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, sits with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., before the start of their meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos as the next Secretary of Education may have been overshadowed by the news that people like Jeff Sessions and Ben Carson, whose names are more widely known and immediately polarizing, will also likely have positions in his cabinet. But despite the fact that the US Department of Education has only existed in this incarnation since 1980, the person heading it up has the potential to seriously impact the future of education in this country. So let’s talk about Betsy DeVos.

For anyone worried about Trump’s inability to stick to one story, put together a cohesive plan, or remember his own previously stated views on any subject, rest assured that he is at least consistent in the desired pocketbook size of his cabinet members: DeVos, like several of Trump’s choices thus far, is a billionaire. She is also a philanthropist, a major Republican donor, and the head of the Windquest group, an investment management group she and her husband founded that invests in a wide variety of things, including clean energy and medical research.

While DeVos has no formal background in education (she has never taught or held an administrative role in a school, and she does not have a degree in education), she has certainly demonstrated a longstanding and seemingly genuine interest in education policy, donating substantial sums of money to education reform over the years (focusing especially on the expansion of the charter-school program in Michigan, her home state — an experiment that many who are opposed to school choice have called a failure) and chairing the American Federation of Children, a school-choice advocacy group.

Education can, of course, be a lifelong pursuit, but for the purposes of this discussion, three phases of schooling seem especially important: early childhood education, K-12 education, and higher education. Let’s examine what we know of DeVos’s background in and intentions for each.

Despite her documented support for school choice and the growth of charter schools, DeVos is in many ways an unknown . Up to this point, she has focused almost solely on K-12 education, which means that her views on early childhood education — its importance or lack thereof, how well the current systems are working, what changes might be desirable, how those changes might be made — are a mystery.

Early childhood education does not seem to be a hot-button political issue at the moment, and in the public discourse it is often pushed aside in favor of trendier topics like Common Core or universal free college. But the importance of quality early childhood programs cannot be overstated, and the case must be made to DeVos that such programs are worth investing in.

It has been well documented that the first few years of life, when neural connections are being formed at a rate of many hundreds per second, are crucial for the development of pretty much everything; according to Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child, “Early experiences affect the development of brain architecture, which provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health.” Unfortunately, the early experiences of many children living in poverty are not conducive to building strong foundations. According to RAND, a nonpartisan research organization, “[N]eighborhoods of concentrated poverty . . . provide more limited opportunities for young children in terms of social interaction, positive role models, and other resources, such as quality child care, health facilities, parks, and playgrounds,” all of which are important for laying those strong foundations. In addition, a parent or caretaker living in extreme poverty is less likely to engage with their children in “literacy-building activities that are associated with better school performance in kindergarten and beyond[, which] include reading to a child regularly (3 or more times a week); teaching children letters, words, and numbers; and telling stories or teaching songs and music.”

Luckily, there is hope: early childhood education programs, as has been demonstrated in studies dating back to the 1960s, have the potential to serve as equalizers, giving children from poor backgrounds a far greater chance at success in elementary school and beyond. The obvious (if not easily executed) solution, then, is high-quality, free, universal preschool.

Of course, such an undertaking would be expensive. But the problem isn’t a lack of money; the problem is that most of the money allocated to education is poured into trying to fix primary and secondary schools. It is certainly true that the K-12 school system has a multitude of problems, but it can also easily be argued that some of those problems — low test scores, high dropout rates, high school seniors with third-grade reading levels — could be mitigated or avoided altogether by investing in preschool programs. As journalist David Freedman says in “The War on Stupid People,” “If the cognitive and emotional deficits associated with poor school performance aren’t addressed in the earliest years of life, future efforts aren’t likely to succeed.”

Children born today will inherit the mess we are making now; the least we can do is give them a fighting chance to figure out how to clean it up. Now more than ever we need someone to champion the cause of improving and expanding access to early childhood education. DeVos, despite the fact that she doesn’t have a background in the field, would do well to try to be that champion.

K-12 education

K-12 education is the phase that DeVos has concentrated on almost exclusively over the course of her career, and she is a strong proponent of school choice, advocating for an increase in voucher programs and charter schools. There are a number of programs that fall under the umbrella of school choice, but it is essentially a way of funneling federal money out of the public-school system and into private and charter schools, which are then able to accept low-income students who would otherwise have been assigned to public schools.

The main arguments for school choice are that it allows families to have control over how their children are educated and that it fosters competition among public and private schools, which in turn leads to better schools all around. Critics, however, say that without strict regulation, school choice can lead to underfunded schools in poor neighborhoods and increased segregation and division based on race and income.

Without strict oversight, school choice can also allow schools to discriminate against students who cause trouble, need extra help or modifications, or have disabilities. The United States is home to students from a wide range of backgrounds and with a wide range of needs: special-education services, ESL instruction, specific kinds of mentoring and counseling, and various other accommodations and modifications. All of these modifications are provided in the public-school system (albeit with varying degrees of success); they could not all be easily or cheaply provided in all schools.

It is easy enough to say that in an ideal world students should be able to go to any school they and their parents choose, regardless of household income, neighborhood, and services required; it is less easy to put such a concept into practice in a way that accounts for students’ actual needs and gives all students the best shot at success. Given her background, it seems almost certain that DeVos will attempt to expand school-choice programs, perhaps even on a federal level; she must be encouraged as she does so to take into account the realities of the country we live in.

As a side note, for anyone who wishes to see more money allotted to vocational and technical schools, there is some small amount of hope that DeVos could be persuaded to take an interest in the topic. In 2010, she and her husband, Dick DeVos, combined their shared interest in school choice and his love of flying to create an aviation charter school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While it doesn’t have a real vocational track, according to DeVos, “[T]hey do give kids the opportunity to pursue hands-on technician training and they give them the opportunity to fly. . . . Any student who wants to pursue pilot training has the opportunity.” Of course, West Michigan Aviation Academy is not exactly a poster child for diversity — according to US News and World Report, 63% of students are white and 77% are male — but there is at least an attempt at teaching a nonacademic skill. It’s a long shot, but perhaps DeVos might consider looking into the expansion of vocational programs.

Higher education

DeVos’s views on higher education, like her views on early childhood ed, are something of an unknown. She doesn’t have a background in higher education, something that many people found surprising when her appointment was announced. That fact in and of itself is not especially problematic — in fact, according to Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Eric Kelderman, only two of the secretaries of education have come directly from higher ed. The problem is that higher ed is facing a number of pressing crises at the moment — things with no easy solutions, like mounting student debt and low graduation rates — and it is as yet unclear how much thought DeVos has given to these problems, and how much interest she has in attacking them. Given the huge difference in lifetime earnings between someone with a high school diploma and someone with a college degree, and given that higher ed is an area many people across the aisle agree we should be investing in, it would be beneficial to everyone for DeVos to develop an interest in the topic.

So what else do we know about her?

As Politico reported, DeVos’s family members have given hundreds of thousands of dollars over the year to anti-LGBTQ organizations, including Focus on the Family, an organization that supports conversion therapy. DeVos herself has not publicly taken a stance on LGBTQ rights, so she may not share her family’s views, but the fact that her family is so closely aligned with such organizations raises alarm bells for those concerned with the welfare of LGBTQ students and their families. Until she makes a public statement on the subject, we have to assume that her stated commitment to ensuring that “all students have . . . the opportunity to fulfill their God-given potential” will outweigh any personal dislike she may have for LGBTQ children and parents.

Speaking of God-given potential, one other important thing to note about DeVos is that she is a devout Christian, and that she would like the school system to do a better job of spreading faith. Given her desire for education reform to lead to “greater Kingdom gain,” as she stated in a 2001 recording obtained by Politico, it is legitimate to wonder how her feelings about the connection between faith and schools will impact her choices as secretary — and whether the separation of church and state is in jeopardy.

When asked why she and her husband chose to give money to school-system reform instead of simply opening Christian schools, she replied, “Our desire is to be in that Shfela [site of Biblical battles], to confront the culture in which we all live today in ways which will continue to help advance God’s Kingdom, but not to stay in our own little faith territory.”

We can interpret that statement to mean that DeVos wishes to attempt mass conversions of non-Christian schoolchildren; or we can take it to mean that she is open to and respectful of the many disparate religious beliefs of children and families in America and believes we can all, regardless of faith, work together for the greater good. For now, at least, let us assume she intended the latter.

News // Early Childhood Education / Education / Higher Education / Schools