The U.S. Senate confirmed billionaire Betsy DeVos as secretary of education on Feb. 7 with a tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Mike Pence, marking the first time in history that this has happened for a cabinet nominee.
DeVos has held neither an educational nor elected position prior to her nomination. However, her resume does include family campaign contributions to 23 active senators, six of whom sat on her confirmation committee hearing, and all of whom voted in favor of her confirmation.
Back in 1997, Betsy DeVos decided to no longer be offended by the implication that her contributions are meant to buy influence and instead wrote in the Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call, that she now concedes the point.
“They are right,” DeVos wrote. “We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues.”
DeVos’ work in education includes reform that supports “advancing God’s kingdom” and three decades of championing school vouchers, which can siphon off public education dollars to private and religious schools with little regulation.
Trump’s nomination of DeVos ignited concern back in Nov. 2016 from educators like Patrick Burk, Ph.D., a professor of educational leadership and policy at Portland State.
“Trump has a responsibility to maintain the federal role in public education,” Burk said. “The fear is that this is more of an abdication of that role by appointing someone who has no experience, and in fact, has aggressively worked against public education, particularly with vouchers.”
PSU professor Anoop Mirpuri also expressed concern about what DeVos’ appointment means for public education. “The problem with the recent nomination of DeVos is that we get the sense that Democrats are on the same side of public education, and that Republicans are on the side of privatization and school of choice vouchers,” Mirpuri said. “But Democrats have been pretty much in line with school segregation and with school of choice and all these things just as much as Republicans, and that’s pretty much encapsulated by the fact that the main opposition Democrats presented during the hearings for DeVos were that ‘DeVos isn’t qualified enough.’”
“As if that’s the reason we should vote her down,” Mirpuri continued. “So if she was extremely qualified in how to privatize public schools, then she would be a legitimate candidate, apparently.”
DeVos’ biggest critics have been teachers’ unions. “Vouchers can be detrimental in a variety of ways,” said Suzanne Cohen, president of the Portland Association of Teachers. “They can serve to segregate students. If a family can not afford to make up the difference in cost, then they can only use the voucher at the lowest cost school. And when these schools are not equal, then the populations most at need are the ones who are not benefiting from vouchers.”
“[DeVos and Trump] are already raising questions about research funds,” Burk said, “as well as threats about funds to sanctuary status campuses.”
“I fear it will put a serious damper on intellectual curiosity,” Burk continued. “I have very serious concerns over medical and biological research and withholding funds on things that have religious overtones to them.”
Professor Mirpuri added to his concerns regarding school of choice vouchers and how bypassing teacher unions can negatively affect educational standards. “[School of choice vouchers] allow schools to bypass teacher unions,” Mirpuri said. “And [they] allow schools to bypass the most current scholarship on teaching pedagogy so that they can do things like teach creationism, deny climate science, or not provide sexual education for students. They can do that legitimately because they no longer have to adhere to federal or scholarly standards on what education actually is. And the kicker is that it’s profitable to people.”
However, neither the secretary of education nor the president write the federal budget, nor do they control how federal funds are spent. That power belongs with Congress. “I think the bigger concern with her than her position is her financial influence,” said Heather Wild, Ph.D., a professor in the PSU Psychology Department.
“She has enough money to fund schools, and that’s a lot of money,” Wild said. “And she has enough money to sway policy in different directions, and she’s given some amount of legitimacy with this position.”
Trump also appointed Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, to lead a task force overseeing higher education reform which will focus on deregulation. In an article published by the Chronicle of Education, Falwell is quoted stating, “The task force will be a big help to [DeVos]. It will do some of the work for her.”
Proponents of deregulation say it could mean reduced costs for universities. According to a study conducted at Vanderbilt University, such efforts have spent $29 million annually on non-research related federal regulation compliance. However, federal regulations don’t oversee the allocation of funds at the university level.
“Educational funding and the way funds are distributed has a lot more to do with the way the board of trustees makes decisions,” Wild said.
“In addition to relying on student debt [tuition], other money for the university comes from private donors, some of whom end up on the board,” said members of the PSU Faculty Association who wished to remain anonymous. “And the board in turn can influence the direction of running our university and can emphasize things like new buildings or flashy sports centers over paying instructors fairly.”
According to numbers supplied by the PSUFA, 47 percent of faculty at PSU are part-time adjunct instructors who do not receive benefits, may not teach more than 20 credits a year, and are paid less than 75 percent of the lowest-paid full-time instructors. One third of adjunct instructors live below the poverty line. “I couldn’t imagine any other industry working this way,” Wild said. “And it’s a real problem in the universities.”
“Essentially, what you have is highly skilled, highly educated cheap labor,” a member of PSUFA said. “And this affects students directly. Teacher conditions are student conditions. The fear is that someone like Betsy DeVos could only exacerbate an already abysmal situation. It’s sort of like a doomsday scenario for higher education.”
Editor’s Note: Patrick Burk’s name was misspelled as Patrick Burke. This was corrected on March 8, 2018 at 1:30 p.m..