BY ANNA SHORTRIDGE '19
Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the 11th Secretary of Education on Feb. 7. Her nomination and subsequent confirmation have perhaps been the most controversial of all of President Donald Trump’s cabinet picks and has received a lot of attention. The Senate vote tied 50-50 and forced Vice President Mike Pence to break the tie. Pence voted in favor of DeVos, allowing her confirmation.
Mount Holyoke students have closely followed DeVos’s path to confirmation, from her nomination to her confirmation hearings. Many have concerns about DeVos holding the position of Secretary of Education. Some are concerned that she does not have the proper qualifications and experience to hold office and believe that she will do more harm than good for education in the United States.
Sarah McCool ’18 said, “To me, Betsy DeVos is an incredible threat to the future of America. She is, as has been demonstrated by her confirmation hearings, incompetent. Her incompetence in a position of leadership is a danger to the public school system in America, something that is already suffering from leadership challenges.”
DeVos is a Republican donor and former chair of the Michigan Republican Party. She was born into a family of conservative philanthropists and activists. DeVos’s father was a billionaire industrialist and a founder of the Family Research Council, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center has categorized as an anti-LGBTQ hate group. The DeVos family is recognized as one of the wealthiest in the state of Michigan.
She has served on the boards of many nonprofit, business and political organizations such as the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation.
DeVos supports school voucher programs and charter schools which use public funds to finance privately run schools. She has pushed for school choice both within the state of Michigan and nationally. DeVos is also the chairman of the American Federation for Children, one of the leading choice advocacy groups in the U.S. In her role with the AFC, according to her website, she has “been a national leader in the fight to boldly reform America’s broken education system by giving parents more options for their children’s education.”
However, DeVos has come under fire from many students who disapprove of her lack of involvement with the U.S. public school system and her strong advocacy for charter schools.
“She’s never been a teacher, she doesn’t send her children to public schools, she never went to a public school, but more than that, she doesn’t understand why those things matter,” said McCool.
Isabel Crane ’19 spoke of her home state of Maine’s experience with DeVos’s school choice system. “The school choice model will be detrimental to rural communities, as there are not many schools already and physical distance from schools can already be an impediment to getting to school,” Crane said. “By siphoning resources from these schools in northern and rural Maine to charter schools in southern Maine, inequality between rural communities and coastal communities will only [be exacerbated]. This is ironic seeing as people say that Trump’s administration appeals to the rural poor. DeVos’s policies are completely counterproductive. Simply put, education is a human right. DeVos’s school choice model completely undermines this right,” said Crane.
According to the Department of Education website, the education 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.” In assuming this position, DeVos will also be called to uphold the Department of Education’s mission “to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence throughout the nation.”
Many students argue, however, that Ms. DeVos cannot fulfill the duties and responsibilities of the education secretary.
“She doesn’t know what students need and she doesn’t know about the current hurdles in education,” claimed Sophie Desnoyers ’19, who attended public high school in South Bronx. “She doesn’t know the improvements needed to be made to make education as accessible and high quality as possible and it really screams something awful about the future of education and students that she was confirmed.”
Kassy Dillon ’18, president of the Mount Holyoke College Republicans, was contacted by the Mount Holyoke News for a comment but was unavailable.
Some Mount Holyoke students have sent letters to their state representatives and senators, expressing their concerns about Betsy DeVos becoming the secretary of education. Hannah Pozzebon ’20 emailed Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, her home state, with her concerns of DeVos becoming the secretary of education. “I basically said that I did not think Betsy DeVos was a good candidate and that he should speak out against her, even though it was a long shot since he had already supported her,” Pozzebon explained. “Also, that he should speak out against the Muslim ban.”
In the senator’s response, he first thanked Pozzebon for contacting him and for sharing her thoughts with him. He then went on to address the current political atmosphere with President Trump’s secretary of education.
“The president has the right to nominate a Cabinet and appoint advisors that he trusts to guide him in his decisions,” wrote Senator Alexander. “When President Obama appointed John King to be secretary of education, I made sure that he had a prompt hearing, and he was confirmed within three weeks. I disagreed with John King on virtually every action that he took as secretary, but I believed that the President deserved to have the Cabinet secretary he wanted. I believe the same courtesy should be shown to President Trump.”
The senator concluded his message by stressing the importance of the acceptance of the election and of the current political climate under President Trump. “It’s time to put the election behind us,” the email stated.
“Now it is the responsibility of President Trump and Congress to work together to address the voices of anger and despair, and of hope, that we heard across America. This includes reducing Washington’s role in our lives, making it easier to find a good job and less expensive health care, and making our system more fair. The way to make change and move our country in the right direction is to work together to bring out the best in all of us.”
Although she received a response, Pozzebon felt as though her senator’s response did not fully address her concerns with Betsy DeVos becoming secretary of education and with the immigration executive order. She felt as though he did not personally address or put any effort into addressing the concerns she raised. “I have a feeling he sent this same kind of email to a lot of people,” said Pozzebon.
Many have wondered why President Trump chose Ms. DeVos for secretary of education. According to the BBC, President Trump has called DeVos a “brilliant and passionate education advocate.” Aside from that, Mr. Trump has revealed very little as to why he chose DeVos for his secretary of education.
In the wake of DeVos’s confirmation, some believe that there should be a restructuring of how cabinet members are chosen.