Rethinking the Importance of Our Secretary of Education

As Donald Trump begins his presidential term, one of the biggest jobs he has is appointing his cabinet. While choices such as Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development were controversial due to Carson’s admitted lack of experience in the area, none have been criticized more than Trump’s choice of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. During questioning before the Senate prior to her approval, prominent Democrats such as Elizabeth Warren revealed how woefully unprepared DeVos is to take on the task of advising the president on all federal policies and programs concerning education in the country. With her lack of experience with public schools, history of huge family donations to the Republican Party, and her billions of dollars, it is apparent that her status may have had more of a role in her appointment than her ability to do the job well.

As a former Republican Party chairwoman in Michigan and chair of the American Federation for Children, DeVos has spent her career creating a movement to privatize public education. She has been working to create programs and pass laws that would require the use of public funds to pay for private schools, and she has been a force behind the spread of charter schools in Michigan.
While many have praised her work, saying that these new programs will give parents a wider choices of schools for their children, many others think this will lead the American education system downhill. This is because while there has been an increase in the quantity of charter schools, there has been a decrease in their quality. Roughly half of Michigan’s charter schools ranked in the bottom quarter for academic performance according to state accountability data from 2013-2014. In addition, Stanford University found that about eight in ten Michigan Charter schools have academic achievement below the state average for both reading and math. DeVos’ controversial work has yet to yield positive results within her state.

Even more concerning, however, is her lack of experience with other aspects of our country’s education system. Unlike previous Secretaries of Education, DeVos does not have a history as an educator or an educational leader. She has only used her position of power and her family’s billions of dollars to prop up the charter school industry. As revealed during questioning from Elizabeth Warren, Devos has never had to take out a federal loan to pay for education expenses, and is therefore not familiar with what millions of families have to do every year to pay for their children’s education. When questioned by Senator Bernie Sanders, DeVos admitted to donating over 200 million dollars to the Republican Party in her lifetime, and Sanders used this to raise an important question: Would she even be considered for this position if she hadn’t contributed so much money to the party that nominated her?

In addition, she does not have a stand on certain basic issues that affect schools. For example, when asked whether guns should be allowed in schools she could not give a definite answer, only citing a rare circumstance in a rural area where a gun was used to kill a grizzly bear. It’s concerning when a leader does not have enough knowledge to form coherent opinions on pressing problems.

It’s been shocking to see such an unorthodox and under-qualified nominee for Secretary of Education, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Two Republican senators, from Alaska and Maine, have said that they would vote against DeVos in light of recent allegations of her plagiarizing responses to questions from senators. To see a potential leader of education attempt plagiarism speaks volumes about her morals. In preparation for the professional world, people in school should never plagiarize, and having a secretary of education who goes against this practice would be setting a terrible example for students around the country.

Her history of using her money to influence schools without conclusive improvement, and her lack of basic experience with public schools and federal loans that most families rely on highlights a disconnect between a majority of the country and herself. While I understand that there is a precedent to accept who the president deems fit to run a department, I think it’s important to look beyond party lines to see how DeVos’s connections and big money have had more to do with her career than her expertise. Education, which prepares younger generations to take on the responsibilities of our country, is one of the most important departments in the United States. We need a Secretary who has the experience and understanding of the system to do the very best for people of all economic backgrounds. Our future depends on it.

Claire Harvey is a second-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at cpharvey@uci.edu