Education, which was hardly ever mentioned in the recent presidential election, has suddenly been thrust to the frontline in the increasingly heated conflict over President-Elect Donald Trump’s proposed cabinet appointees. The reason for that turn of events is his choice of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. Her nomination risks “reigniting the education wars,” according to Randi Weingarten, the leader of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union.
Weingarten stated that warning in an address this week at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, and broadcast live on the AFT Facebook page.
The union leader joins a chorus of education leaders and activists, as well as Democratic party government officials on Capitol Hill, in calls to delay the hearing for DeVos until after government ethics officials have finished their review of DeVos’ numerous ties to financial and charitable interests. After these calls for delay, the confirmation hearing was indeed postponed for a week.
But what education wars?
During her address, Weingarten referrs to the passage of new federal education legislation in 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act, that resolved many of the disputes over testing, teacher evaluation, and test-based “accountability” provisions that had been instigated by the previous federal law, No Child Left Behind.
Weingarten calls the consensus over ESSA “hard won” and “positive progress” in the way Republicans and Democrats could work together to govern the nation’s schools. But in Trump’s selection of DeVos, Weingarten sees “the antithesis of public education, ESSA bipartisanship, and what kids need.”
She calls DeVos “the most anti-public education figure ever” to hold the office and says her nomination would make education “a strong issue again” that would divide Republicans and Democrats.
In a phone conversation with Weingarten after her speech, I asked more specifically where she sees signs of a return to a more polarized policy debate over education.
She points to DeVos’ opposition to a bipartisan bill in Michigan, her home state and where she wields considerable influence, that would have returned some oversight of Detroit’s public education system – including regulating the openings and closings of traditional public schools and charter schools – to a mayor-appointed education commission.
Weingarten calls the bill a product of “consensus” among prominent stakeholders in Detroit, “people who really care about Detroit” – including the local chamber of commerce, religious leaders, community groups, parents, and educators. But Weingarten believes this local collaboration was undermined, largely due to DeVos’ influence, by an “ideology” coming from outside the community.
The ideology Weingarten refers to is the strong preference DeVos has for generally unfettered “school choice” that has rapidly expanded in Detroit and across the “Mitten State.” In Weingarten’s mind, DeVos has a strong tendency to enforce her own personal preference for choice and undermine other education ideas that come about from local collaboration.
Local collaboration is one of what Weingarten calls the “four pillars” of success in public education. Using the plural first-person pronoun to represent the collective beliefs of her organization and of public school supporters in general, she tells me, “We are not a competitive environment. We are not a commodity or a marketplace. We are for all kids.”
Seeing outsiders like DeVos, who lives in the suburbs of well-to-do Grand Rapids and spends significant sums of money to influence electoral politics and legislation at the capital in Lansing, undermining what communities like Detroit want for their local schools reminds Weingarten of the heated controversies that have long raged in communities like New Orleans, Newark, Philadelphia, and Chicago where public education activists have objected to education governance “being done to us, not with us”. ESSA was supposed to end that, Weingarten believes, and now DeVos will restart that conflict.
Another sign of the oncoming education war Weingarten sees is the resurgence of heated rhetoric vilifying teachers and their unions and branding public schools negatively.
She points to a recent pro-DeVos op-ed in Breitbart News by William Bennett, the Secretary of Education under Ronal Reagan, that criticizes Weingarten personally and rails against teachers unions and “underperforming and dangerous public schools.” (Bennett fails to note Michigan charter schools have an underperformance problem that is equal to the states’ public schools.)
Evidence of the re-emerging education war Weingarten perhaps didn’t see, or at least failed to mention to me, is the clear adversarial sides that are coming together to oppose each other.
For years, education policy has been an arena with blurred political allegiances, with Democrats often opposing teachers and public education advocates and siding with Republicans on issues like using student test scores to evaluate teachers and to close schools while increasing taxpayer money for privately operated charter schools.
In the case of the DeVos appointment, the partisan divides for or against her are quite strong.
While conservative Republicans, including “moderates” like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, have made public statements in support of DeVos, forces on the left are showing an uncharacteristically unified front in opposition to a proponent of “school choice.”
Massachusetts US Senator Elizabeth Warren is helping to lead the way on the Democratic party side. In a strongly worded letter to DeVos, Warren writes, “Your history of support for policies that would drain valuable taxpayer resources from our public schools and funnel those funds to unaccountable private and for-profit education operators may well disqualify you.”
Another Democratic senator, Cory Booker of New Jersey, who is usually supportive of charter schools and voucher programs that send public education money to private education vendors, has also expressed “serious concerns” with the DeVos nomination and seems likely to oppose her.
In the House of Representatives, Democrats have responded to Trump’s pick for education secretary by forming a new congressional caucus.
In an event that Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan broadcast on his Facebook page, numerous Democratic party congressional representatives from across the country joined with Weingarten, National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen Garcia, and Chicago community activist Jitu Brown to announce the formation of the new caucus and urge senators to vote “no” on DeVos’ confirmation.
Pocan noted how school choice initiatives in his home state, such as vouchers, tended to spread academic failure while siphoning resources from taxpayer supported local schools. At one publically funded voucher school, Pocan recalls, “We had one person running the school who claimed he could read a book by placing his hand on the book. We gave funds to schools that used the money to buy Cadillacs.”
Following Pocan, California Rep. Mark Takano, a former public school teacher who spent 24 years in the classroom, insisted DeVos will enforce a “for-profit model of education that will severely cripple public schools … The results of her work in Michigan serve as a warning to schools across America.”
It was especially startling to see Colorado Rep. Jared Polis joining with his Democratic colleagues in calling out DeVos as an enemy of good public education options. Polis, who promotes charter schools and founded one, once called public school advocate and education historian Diane Ravitch “an evil woman” because of her prominent criticism of “education reform” ideas. In his address, Polis accused DeVos of spreading choice without attention to whether the schools were “high quality” options.
This strong opposition to the DeVos nomination from Democrats indicates that if Weingarten is right, that the education wars are returning, the conflict will be different from the past. This time the lines dividing political parties won’t be blurred, and Democrats will know whose side they should be on.