Democrats Who Oppose Betsy DeVos Have Nothing To Lose

Jeff Bryant

In “an unprecedented break” from tradition, Democrats in the US Senate are expected to challenge as many as eight of Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees, including Betsy DeVos for US Secretary of Education, according to a report by the Washington Post.

The opposition to DeVos, Politico reports, comes from “more than a dozen Democratic senators from all wings of the party” who “will portray DeVos’ views as being outside the education mainstream.”

The non-mainstream “views” Politico cites include her “bankrolling efforts to create state voucher programs” and to expand a “loosely-regulated charter school sector” in Michigan, her home state. The Senators are “also intent on drawing attention to her lack of experience in a traditional public school setting. DeVos has never worked as a public school teacher or superintendent, nor has she sent her own kids to public schools.”

Opposition to DeVos has brought an outcry from conservative and politically centrist fans of “education reform” who claim opposing DeVos is driven “partisanship” and “nasty,” “personalized” rhetoric.

It’s true that the opposition to DeVos is a radical departure from what’s happened in the past.

Contrast the reception she is about to get on Capitol Hill to what happened eight years ago when the Senate confirmed former Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan as President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education. As Education Week reported then, Duncan “coasted through his confirmation hearing … on a wave of bipartisan support.”

Even well into the Obama administration, when Duncan resigned, his replacement, Acting Secretary and former New York state education commissioner John King, “got a partisan-fireworks-free confirmation hearing from the Senate,” per Education Week.

Keep in mind, both Duncan and King had been controversial figures in their respective school leader roles, with Duncan leading a reform charge that ultimately failed and King horribly bungling the implementation of new state academic standards. Also, both had been strong supporters of of the policies DeVos says she will push for federal policy, including charter schools and “school choice.”

What happened?

Certainly, November’s remarkably polarizing presidential election has scrambled previous alliances and opportunities for political consensus, few as they have been.

But what does this mean for education policy?

DeVos, The Ultimate Insider

Like many of Trump’s other cabinet insiders, DeVos is a figure of great wealth and privilege who in no way represents a “populist” wave sweeping into Washington. In DeVos, Trump has found the ultimate inside power player.

Jennifer Berkshire, my colleague at The Progressive magazine, recounts on her personal blog how Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick have played a “long game” to control the fate of Michigan’s much beleaguered public schools.

Berkshire points to a piece by Michigan-based journalist Allie Gross calling attention to a campaign conceived in the early 1990s to expand charter schools in the state. According to local news accounts Gross uncovered, there were just four major financial backers for the campaign, two of which are directly related to Betsy and Dick DeVos.

Everyone knows that politics is ‘dirty business,'” writes Michigan State University professor and blogger Mitchell Robinson, “but the brand of politics played by the DeVos family in Michigan is a particularly brutal version of the game.”

According to Robinson, the DeVoses have mostly failed at achieving political success the old-fashioned way – by using the electoral process. When their efforts to win a statewide referendum for a school voucher program and elect husband Dick to the governorship both resulted in resounding defeats, the “twin humiliations” motivated the DeVoses to attain their goals “like most political operatives and lobbyists, in the background.”

Among the “background” efforts Robinson points to is a DeVos financed “Skunk Works” campaign, “a secretive, off-the-books work group that had been tasked with developing a system of ‘low cost schools'” that would eventually lead to a school voucher program of some sort.

Robinson also points to the considerable influence Betsy and Dick DeVos had on ensuring the 2016 legislation to turn around the troubled Detroit school system did not include any further regulation of charter schools. He cites evidence backing up his claim the DeVoses were “the major players” in the effort to ensure any bill that passed “carved out special protections for school choice and charter schools, even going so far as to ‘freeze out’ a leading Republican senator and Detroit’s mayor from the deliberations.”

The DeVos Money Machine

The inside influence DeVos and her husband have wielded in Michigan has extended to “the national political stage” as well, according to Education Week, where they “are perhaps best known as big-time donors to Republican candidates and groups.”

EdWeek reporter Andrew Ujifusa notes, “In the 2016 election year, for example, the two gave $2.7 million to Republican candidates … But their campaign-donation record goes back much further. And it includes contributions to several senators who may vote on Betsy DeVos’ confirmation in the Senate education committee and subsequently on the Senate floor.”

Ujifusa unearthed nearly $2.7 million in political donations, over the past 20 years, Betsy DeVos personally gave to 370 individuals and causes.

The DeVos funding machine also extends to the All Children Matter PAC, which finances campaigns related to education and other issues. “Over nine years since it was founded,” Ujifusa reports, “the group gave $1.8 million to 581 candidates and party committees,” some of which got the organization in trouble for skirting campaign finance rules in Ohio in 2008. The state has fined All Children Matter $5.2 million, which the organization has yet to pay.

In the questionnaire  DeVos had to submit to the Senate committee that will meet with her next week, there is an astonishingly long list of political contributions.

The insider status DeVos enjoys is especially in character with the nature of the education reform agenda, which has always been much more reliant on the inner workings of politics and wealthy people rather than the will of the general populace.

Yet, the emergence of opposition to DeVos from Democratic party insiders seems to fly in the face of the bipartisan effort that has driven many of the policies she supports.

What Education Bipartisanship Hath Wrought

As Rachel Cohen writes for the American Prospect, “In a sense, the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations softened the ground” for “federally incentivized expansion of vouchers and other forms of privatization” DeVos is expected to advocate for.

“In the bipartisan deal that led to the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002,” Cohen writes, Republicans and Democrats enacted the standardized testing and accountability measures that created the narrative of “failing” schools. Obama, with his appointment of Duncan, extended and confirmed the narrative further.

Also throughout the Bush-Obama years, the federal flow of money and favorable policies for charter schools increased significantly. With the appointment of DeVos, the spigot of funding for various forms of privately operated, taxpayer funded schools will likely open wider still.

In Michigan, what the expansion of charter schools has led to, according to a report for the Christian Science Monitor, is an increasingly polarized debate where supporters of charter schools and vouchers insist these policies are what “has put kids before adults” against detractors who point to evidence “that 80 percent of the state’s charters actually perform worse than traditional public schools” and a “lack of oversight and accountability” has led to atrocious levels of financial waste, abuse, fraud, and corruption.

That’s exactly the scenario we’ve been seeing at the federal level as well, where insiders backing reform increasingly claim their cause is “all about the kids,” while outsiders continue to point to evidence that results of the reform agenda often lead to something quite the contrary.

What’s changed, however, is that it’s become evident that In states like Michigan, the insiders’ push for education reform no longer needs to include Democrats.

The End Of Education Bipartisanship?

As EdWeek’s Ujifusa notes, the amount the DeVoses gave to Democrats in 2016 was “nothing” and over the history of Betsy DeVos’ personal giving, only “a very, very small amount went to Democratic candidates or groups.” Of the senators who will preside over DeVos’ confirmation hearing, none of the Democrats have received donations from her, while four of the Republican senators have enjoyed her cash.

The truth is, from a political standpoint, the education reform agenda – at least the way it’s currently conceived as a mélange of funding austerity, standardization, testing, and efforts to direct tax dollars to various private interests – has been bipartisan because it had to be. Without a popular groundswell for charters and other school privatization efforts, Republicans intent on privatizing public education have needed Democratic party insiders to help push legislation and policy through government channels at all levels.

But that’s changing. Now that the federal government resembles much more the makeup of states like Michigan – where conservative Republicans dominate the legislative and executive branches – bipartisanship is a luxury Republicans no longer need to move their ideas for school vouchers and other forms of privatization forward.

For sure, there are Democratic party insiders who believe they’ve been backing the cause of education reform for idealistic reasons. They may choose to go along to get along with the new Republican regime to see where that gets them despite having zero leverage in the policy debate.

But for those Democrats who’ve remained largely silent or on the fence on charter schools, vouchers, and other features of the reform movement, now is indeed a good time to express opposition. They have nothing to lose.

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