President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. secretary of education would threaten children’s access to equal education and is unfit to head the Department of Education, civil rights groups said ahead of Betsy DeVos’ Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday.
A billionaire philanthropist and a long-time advocate for school choice, DeVos has funneled millions to conservative causes and candidates. She helped clear the way for the rise of charter schools in her home state of Michigan ― which has the most for-profit charters in the country ― and is a proponent of voucher programs that let students use public dollars at private schools.
DeVos appeared before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on Tuesday afternoon.
“We cannot support a nominee who has demonstrated that she seeks to undermine bedrock American principles of equal opportunity, non-discrimination and public education itself,” said Wade Henderson, president and chief executive of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
DeVos has been involved in education causes for years, previously chairing the American Federation for Children advocacy group and founding the Great Lakes Education Project with her husband, Dick DeVos. But she never worked as a teacher or administrator in a school and did not attend public schools nor send her children to them. Critics say her lack of experience makes her unfit for the DOE post.
It also raises uncertainty as to whether she’d be able to ― or willing to ― forcefully pursue equal rights protections for students, one of the major responsibilities of the department through its Office for Civil Rights.
States’ resistance to Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1950s civil rights case that outlawed school segregation, gives a window into the need for the Department of Education to be a strong enforcer, said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She also warned that civil rights infringements in education can come under innocuous-sounding names.
While desegregation efforts were met with outward opposition, including violence and school closures, “resistance also took the form of things like school choice and the diversion of public funds for private white academies,” Ifill said. “So we’re deeply familiar with the ways in which public education can be starved and can harm those children who need it the most, the most marginalized children, by a variety of schemes.”
Proponents of school choice policies such as expanding charter schools, limiting their oversight and creating voucher programs argue that they increase competition and give students access to better opportunities, particularly those in struggling school districts like Detroit’s. But critics say DeVos’ approach will decimate public education and doesn’t have the benefits she suggests.
In Detroit, where charters now outnumber public schools, there’s little evidence they’re providing a better quality of education. Voucher programs also haven’t been proven to improve student achievement.
DeVos has said she believes charters and public education can coexist. Ed Patru, a spokesman for a group of DeVos backers, told Politico that DeVos’ support for vouchers and school choice stems from a concern for civil rights.
“In hundreds of communities of color, kids aren’t being taught the skills they need to succeed in college or find the kinds of jobs that pay enough to escape poverty, and Betsy believes that is an alarming civil rights crisis,” Patru told the news site.
Education activists pointed to Devos’ donations to a group that has been fighting federal policy designed to protect sexual assault victims on college campuses. DeVos donated $10,000 to civil liberties group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
She’s also donated hundreds of thousands to anti-LGBT groups that espouse “conversion therapy.” Though there’s no indication she shares those beliefs, Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, worries DeVos could undo the Obama administration’s work to protect transgender students from discrimination.
“Transgender students deserve better than an ideological and ill-trained education secretary who supports the message that they were broken,” Keisling said.
DeVos has also been criticized for shepherding in Michigan’s right-to-work legislation, which undermines teachers unions, and has made controversial comments in the past about the role of Christianity in schools.
DeVos’ husband is heir to the Amway fortune, and the family is worth an estimated $5 billion. Democrats say her nomination is rife with conflict of interest issues and is one more example of Trump breaking his promise to “drain the swamp,” instead filling his cabinet with some of the wealthiest Americans.