Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education Tuesday after a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence. She faced staunch opposition from all Senate Democrats, who protested her nomination with an all-night session, and even two Republicans. Here’s a closer look at the policies that made DeVos the most narrowly-approved Cabinet secretary in history, and one of Donald Trump’s most controversial nominations.
School Choice and Vouchers
DeVos’ most prominent and most controversial stance is on school choice, which would allow parents to choose where their children attend school, instead of following the traditional public-school model. Specifically, DeVos advocates for a voucher system, which would allocate federal funding to help parents pay for the school of their choice, whether that’s public school, private school, or a charter school.
“Let the education dollars follow each child, instead of forcing the child to follow the dollars. This is pretty straightforward. And it’s how you go from a closed system to an open system that encourages innovation. People deserve choices and options,” DeVos said during a 2015 speech at SXSWedu in Austin, Texas.
Trump is also a proponent of vouchers, and has proposed dedicating $20 billion in federal funding toward voucher programs and charter schools. In addition, he has expressed a desire to persuade states to invest another $110 billion toward vouchers. The goal would be to give every child $12,000 to spend on education. That money could either be funneled back into the public school system or used to subsidize the cost of a private education.
The problem with this approach is that it stands to weaken the public education system and do a disservice to many students, especially those already prone to disadvantage. In a 2015 speech in the Senate, Sen. Patty Murray laid out the argument against vouchers.
“Vouchers undermine the basic goals of public education by allowing funding that is designated for our most at-risk students to be re-routed to private schools,” she said. She later added, “Today, public schools across the country, and particularly those schools with high concentrations of students in poverty, need more funding, not less. We cannot afford to send scarce federal resources away from public schools to benefit private schools.”
As Sen. Murray went on to explain, vouchers usually cover some, but not all, of the cost of private schools. This means that they benefit affluent families who can afford to pay the difference out of pocket, while leaving low-income students with no choice but to attend public schools—which would become increasingly underfunded under a voucher program.
In addition to the negative impact on public schools and the children they would continue to serve, voucher programs don’t impose any standards on the private institutions they help to fund. There would be no way to guarantee that private schools were employing state-licensed teachers or meeting the assessment standards required of public schools, for example.
DeVos is also in favor of expanding charter schools, which are publicly funded, but independently run. While proponents claim that charter schools, which enjoy more flexibility, foster more innovative curriculums, opponents point to their lack of accountability and, in some cases, poor performance.