Thoughtful colleagues in the Department of Education have clarified the issues for me and calmed the political furor surrounding the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. I asked if they could enlighten me on the rancor that was surrounding the confirmation of Ms. DeVos. I pointed out that the Secretary of Education cabinet position does not usually arouse much passion in political debate. Although Betsy DeVos seems to have little or no experience in education, she is otherwise a decent, educated woman. She has been actively involved in Republican politics as a major donor for many years and has an impeccable personal reputation. Why so much rancor, I asked?
Whether our colleagues in education were for or against DeVos’s confirmation, they all answered the question with the same response, “politics as usual.” The issue was not really about DeVos’s qualifications but rather about her philosophy. Our colleagues reminded me that there is a deep philosophical divide among educators across the country between those who think education should be controlled at the federal level, and those who believe education should be controlled at the state and local level.
Betsy DeVos is a proponent of “choice”. She believes that parents should be afforded the choice of which school they want their children to attend. From her point-of-view, the Department of Education should supply robust support to the development of charter schools rather than continuing to expand the traditional public school system.
Many professional educators, especially those working in the Department of Education, vehemently oppose this point-of-view. They believe that the concept of “choice” at the individual level will destroy our traditional public school system.
When it comes to education, all political parties seem to agree that our education system needs improvement. In an unusual show of bipartisan agreement, the last Congress was able to pass a bill reauthorizing federal education policy and funding, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Senators and Representatives from both sides of the aisle agreed it was time to rebalance responsibility for public education, returning more responsibility to the states. According to Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, ESSA was a response to the earlier No Child Left Behind Act. “The path to higher standards and better teaching and real accountability is community by community, classroom by classroom, state by state, and not through the federal government.”
THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION’S RESPONSE
The Department of Education began to immediately establish rules guiding how states were to implement ESSA thereby returning control of education to the federal government. Their argument was “that many states will ignore the needs of minority and at-risk students and allow them to receive a second-rate education.” The fight was on!
POLITICS AS USUAL
In other words, this war began long before Betsy DeVos wandered onto the field of battle. The rancorous debate over her appointment had nothing to do with her person. It was about who was going to be in charge of education; employees of the federal government or parents? From their point-of-view, the employees of the Department of Education are the appointed guardians of the underprivileged. Local school boards and even parents are not capable of looking out for their children when it comes to education. In other words, they are fighting for their jobs. Politics as usual.
SELF-INTEREST VS. SUBSTANCE
Throughout the entire Obama administration, through the recent election season, and now into the Trump administration pundits constantly pose the question, “How has our country become so divided – so polarized?” The answer is apparent in the recent Betsy DeVos confirmation battle. When self-interest trumps substance, battle lines are drawn.