Q & A: Vigilance in order in wake of DeVos appointment

February 14, 2017
Gordon Thomas, Executive Secretary

Question: Are there any implications for Alberta with the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the new United States secretary of education? Is she an advocate for public education?

Answer: There could well be implications for Alberta’s education system. DeVos is a fierce advocate for school choice, school vouchers, charter schools and for-profit private education. A long-time Republican from Michigan, DeVos belongs to a family that has contributed more than $17 million to the party since 1989. In a 1997 interview, she stated that she expected to benefit from her political contributions.

“We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues … We expect a return on our investment….”

Forbes puts her family’s net worth in the range of $5.1 billion, making it a leading contributor to conservative causes.

DeVos’s nomination set off a firestorm, given that she has no education qualifications to justify her appointment as secretary of education. Her work has been as a lobbyist, someone who has devoted much effort to influencing conversations about education reform based on ideological convictions, not research evidence. Her nomination has been strongly opposed by the American teachers’ unions, with Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers president, naming DeVos “the most ideological anti–public education nominee” in U.S. history. Her confirmation hearing was very rocky, with many questions posed about her knowledge of public education, financial aid and student loans. DeVos drew widespread media attention for her comments that guns might have a place in schools due to threats from grizzly bears.

Our public education system needs to be supported; education is a public good. We will need to be very mindful of the risks ahead and vigilant in our defense of public education.

DeVos’s confirmation will lead to an effort to overhaul the U.S. education system, but there appears to be no plan or funding. She will advocate for school choice, and that means ways to fund private schools as if they were public schools. One way to achieve this is to establish a school voucher program. Another way is to expand the system of charter schools, again drawing funding away from traditional public schools. Key interests include developing for-profit private schools (to ensure quality for students) and to establish tax credits for donations and scholarships to private schools.

In every respect, these are directions that will undermine the U.S. public education system. Her family foundation has made extensive donations to private Christian schools and charter schools. In her view, the bottom line is to “open up the market” in public education — DeVos sees the current system as “a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. It’s a monopoly, a dead end.” Her belief is that dollars should be steered away from traditional public education in order to establish competition and choice.

Of course, Alberta’s system is very different and the Rachel Notley government has absolutely no interest in the directions being taken by the new U.S. secretary of education. However, it will be interesting to see what traction these ideas get with the Wildrose opposition and the contenders for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. The directions DeVos wants to pursue could dramatically shift the nature and structure of our public education system, widely regarded as the best in the English-speaking world today. Some of these directions are a throwback to initiatives undertaken in Alberta during the Ralph Klein administration.

Our public education system needs to be supported; education is a public good. We will need to be very mindful of the risks ahead and vigilant in our defense of public education.

Questions for consideration in this column are welcome. Please address them to Gordon Thomas at Barnett House (gordon.thomas@ata.ab.ca).