The DeVos Curriculum

Jewish Light Editorial

Remember how in high school you squeaked by on the final exam in Latin or trigonometry but you felt that it really didn’t matter because you weren’t going to use any of that stuff in your real life anyway?

That’s kind of how Betsy DeVos won confirmation by the narrowest margin possible in the Senate as the nation’s secretary of education. But now she is the federal government’s chief school official, and the stuff she doesn’t know can affect what happens in practically every classroom and campus in the nation.

From the start, the DeVos nomination seemed to personify the worst of Donald Trump’s transition: naming a rich crony whose experience and expertise had little to do with the post she was nominated to fill. And her Senate confirmation hearing did little to demonstrate that she would be the champion of all students, most of them in the nation’s public schools.

Would she guarantee accountability for any school that receives public funds? Asked four times, all she would do was robotically reply, “I support accountability.” If a school gets federal money, should it have to obey federal rules for students with disabilities? That’s best left to the states, DeVos said, parroting a favorite line of the new administration. Do guns belong in the classroom? Well, students in some areas might need firepower to fight off grizzlies.

One of the biggest impressions left by the DeVos affair was the feeling that her financial contributions had bought her confirmation, with big checks written to the very senators whose votes put her near the top, nudged over by a historic assist from Vice President Mike Pence.

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That certainly appeared to be the case with Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., with revelations published in the Huffington Post (read online at about how her influence played a big role in the victory by Matt Blunt, the senator’s son, over Claire McCaskill in the 2004 Missouri governor’s race.

McCaskill, in announcing her vote against DeVos, said that while the nominee’s push for school choice may sound good to some, in many places across Missouri and the nation, choices aren’t available, so the federal government’s emphasis should be on making sure that free public education is fully and fairly funded.

The Jewish community has seen a split on the issue of choice and vouchers. Among Jewish day school educators, the lure of government support for private, religious education is appealing; for others, who have seen how good public schools can be a great leveler for society as a whole, the prospect of taxpayer money for private education is worrisome. And any schools that accept public funding have to be ready to accept public oversight along with it, a condition that should make any private school official think twice.

Though Washington may have little influence in the day-to-day operations of local education, the secretary of education can symbolize the strength and importance of good public schools. Despite their shortcomings, programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top had real impact on local classrooms, so the head of the Department of Education shouldn’t squander any chance to help as many children as possible.

On the theory that you’re never too old to learn, here’s a start on the curriculum we’d like DeVos to study:

Accountability. Make sure all schools set ambitious targets for student achievement, then are held accountable so that the goals are met and the tools are made available to help students grow. Don’t abandon kids in public school.

Church-state concerns American law and tradition construct sturdy walls that let people practice religion as they wish and bar the government from establishing or supporting houses of worship. Allowing public money to fund religious education would erode that solid foundation, so any steps toward vouchers have to be measured and carefully considered.

The bully pulpit. The federal government’s top education official should be a cheerleader for public schools, someone who emphasizes their proud history and their vast potential, not someone who belittles their accomplishments and highlights only their shortcomings. The frequent contention that education should be run like a business shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how schools operate.

The road ahead. After she was confirmed, DeVos talked in conciliatory tones about working with everyone to improve education. If her deeds match her words, the future for American schools could become brighter. It’s never too late for a makeup exam. 

Of significance is the fact that shortly after she took office, Secretary DeVos chose to visit a public school, the Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Washington, D.C.  A small group of protesters briefly delayed her entry into the school.  

We hope she goes beyond photo-ops and continues to reach out and reassure public schools that her policies will not harm or weaken them.