The real education of Betsy DeVos

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Betsy DeVos during her rigorous confirmation hearing. She was confirmed and sworn in on Tuesday.
Betsy DeVos during her rigorous confirmation hearing. She was confirmed and sworn in on Tuesday. Getty

It’s not that Betsy DeVos is a billionaire, or that she, her husband and kids didn’t attend public schools. It’s not even that her family has given donations to the very people who made her education secretary on Tuesday that makes her an unqualified and unsettling choice for the position.

No, it’s her antipathy for public schools, what she once called a “dead end.”

Yes, it’s the 21st century, and public schools have to change if they are to keep up with the free market, which has made deep incursions into their territory. But unless the charters she’s pushing throw open their doors to the tough-to-teach, the disabled, the English-challenged children, they will be left behind, as they are too often.

With Vice President Mike Pence voting in her favor, breaking the 50-50 Senate deadlock — the first time ever this has occurred for a cabinet position — DeVos will now implement President Trump’s plan to steer $20 billion in existing federal public-education funds into vouchers that pay for private schools.

This appointment brought another first: DeVos will be an education secretary with zero public-education experience.

But she does have a long record of anti-public education activism. She is considered a major force in dismantling the nation’s public school system, which she says has failed our students, a simplistic overstatement. She believes — with all her heart and money — that vouchers to private and religious and charter schools are the way to fix the nation’s education crisis. She and her organizations, like the American Federation for Children, have spent $33 million to support school privatization efforts.

DeVos is no friend of the public school system, whose educators say charter schools and vouchers for private schools cannibalize the public school system — a system that still educates 90 percent of the nation’s children. Charters and private schools are also criticized for selectively skimming the cream of the crop among students, while public schools take all.

It’s a shame that DeVos, like other Trump cabinet nominees, will be charged with dismantling vital and effective departments from within. It’s a cruel joke that stands to benefit the few and, perhaps, the privileged, while leaving the vast majority of students, including those who parents are ardent Trump supporters, out in the academic cold.

So what will DeVos’ tenure mean for local public schools? That depends on the education of Betsy DeVos. Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho says he wants to collaborate with her. He heads a district that receives more than $400 million from the federal government annually and where 75 percent of students live below the poverty level. Carvalho says he welcomes a meeting with DeVos any time.

“My intention is to engage in dialogue with her about education in the 21st century and to explain the need for equitable education. For us, the gutting of any of the federal programs for students with disabilities or for those who are socially disadvantaged would be flirting with disaster.”

For those who vigorously fought her confirmation, a hard new reality must be embraced. We praise Carvalho for taking the road of engagement, not fear and isolation, on behalf of Miami-Dade students.

DeVos has a steep learning curve. Public school systems, doing the heavy lifting across the country, need to remind her of that every single day.