DeVos at USDOE? A Look at History, Her Record and Michigan Problems Says No

Debate on the nomination of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education is set to begin today at Noon.

Evidence to date has indicated she does not have the experience necessary to lead the department that oversees programs to support the education of 50 million students in our country. Further, she doesn’t support its mission: her only qualification is as a funder for a belief in charters and vouchers that drains resources away from that system.

So, why would Kentucky, a national leader in education reform and performance, support such a choice to lead our national public school effort? Why would anyone?

As we head in to the hearing and the vote, it is helpful to look at the history of the department and its leadership. Here’s the basic job description of the U.S. Secretary of Education:

 The Secretary is responsible for the overall direction, supervision, and coordination of all activities of the Department and is the principal adviser to the President on Federal policies, programs and activities related to education in the United States.

 When President Jimmy Carter signed the bill to create the department, he said, “Education is our most important national investment…. My first public office was as a county school board member. As a State Senator and Governor I devoted much of my time to education issues. I remain convinced that education is one of the noblest enterprises a person or a society can undertake.”

 Interestingly, the move reduced 200 separate agencies into three. President Carter explained that creating a separate department would result in a more responsive, accountable, efficient, and transparent operation to support the state and local education efforts, where he acknowledged most of the responsibility rested.

The job requires a knowledge base in public education and a respect for public service, which is lacking in Betsy DeVos, based on her words and her record.

 Here is the experience level of recent U.S. Secretaries of Education:

  • John King 2016-17 – a lifelong educator who served as Commissioner of Education in New York and headed a successful charter school organization
  • Arne Duncan 2009-15 – superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, one of the largest schools systems in the U.S.
  • Margaret Spellings 2005-09 – worked in education reform in Texas and for the Texas Association of School Boards
  • Rod Paige 2001-05 – School board member, then Superintendent of Houston Public Schools
  • Richard Riley 1993-2001 – former Governor of South Carolina who won national recognition for his efforts to improve education
  • Lamar Alexander 1990-93 – former President of the University of Tennessee and Governor of that state; architect of the Every Student Succeeds Act

Each of these leaders was chosen for their experience and knowledge of public education, through having worked in the system or in significant public service. They each respected the job and provided a challenging, yet inspiring, message for public school educators.

Lamar Alexander, Richard Riley and Rod Paige served in states that made improvement in public education a priority and posted improvements. Betsy DeVos has not. In fact Michigan’s public schools have failed to show adequate improvement compared with these states over 25 years. And, Kentucky out paces and out scores Michigan in all areas on the National Assessment of Education Progress. Furthermore, Louisville’s performance on these national tests bests many urban areas; Detroit’s scores are lower across the board.

Her home state, where she has been involved in education, has done poorly. She hasn’t made it a priority to support the system that educates most of Michigan’s students. Even the state’s charter system is not rated highly, has some of the biggest problems and has lax accountability standards.

Her words indicate she doesn’t respect the heritage of public education, and she doesn’t support initiatives to improve them or enforce education laws on the books. In short, she simply doesn’t have the executive experience or the public education commitment to do the job.

About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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