Bare Facts: Betsy DeVos, Free Market Education & LGBTQ safety

In this Bare Facts I’m going to take a quick look at the role of Education Secretary in the US, and at the newly but controversially elected Betsy DeVos. This will include looking at her past experience, the policies she is likely to put forward, and her links to anti-LGBTQ groups and gay conversion therapy. You can find the last Bare Facts Post (Executive Orders, the Trump Muslim Ban and Refugees in America) here.

‘Bare Facts’ are a stripped back look at what is going on in politics and current affairs, with the intention of providing facts which could be useful for you in your own day-to-day debates and defense. It’s always good to know exactly what you’re talking about.

Who is Betsy DeVos?devos.png

Betsy DeVos is a Republican Party member who Donald Trump nominated for the role of Education Secretary; she won the Senate position yesterday (Feb 7) and is now a member of the Trump cabinet.

Prior to this role, she has been known as a businesswoman and campaign contributor. This is often referred to as ‘Soft Money.’ [1] Along with her family, she is known as a strong fundraiser for the Republican Party and also as one of the biggest donors. They have donated more than $17million since 1989, [2] with some estimating figures up to $200million [3].

She is known famously for her anti-public school stance [4] and for her part-owned business ‘Neurocore’ which seeks to treat a range of neurological health problems and mental illnesses with biofeedback [5] and technology like TV and film, in order to ‘train’ the brain out of illness.

Why is her election to this position controversial?

Betsy DeVos was confirmed by the Senate to her position by a 51-50 margin. This tie was broken by Vice-President Mike Pence, in the first partisan tie-break of this nature in US history. [6] You can watch a video of this moment here.

betsy_devos_final_confirmation_vote_in_us_senate_tie_broken_by_mike_pence

As the Democrats are a minority in the Senate, a block opposition was not going to be strong enough to oppose his appointment. Two Republican Senators also opposed her postion, however, which resulted in the 50-50 tied vote. [7]

Her appointment to this position is also controversial because some critics have suggested it shows careful manipulation of the Senate and its proceedings. It has been argued that Betsy DeVos’ vote was planned to precede the nomination of Jeff Sessions to Attorney General in order to fix the number of votes. When Jeff Sessions is nominated, he will have to resign his seat in the Senate, which would have destabilised the 50-50 split to the detriment of DeVos.

What does the Education Secretary do?

The US Secretary of State for Education is the Head of the Department of Education. This entails advising the President on matters of education which relate to federal activities, programmes and policies. This position is part of the President’s cabinet, who are the closest advisors to the Head of State.

The Department of Education’s stated mission is ‘to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.’ You can find more information about this in the dept.’s own overview of their duties and activities, here.

What experience doe DeVos have for this role?

DeVos has been a campaigner for education policies for many years; you can find a list of her activities on her wikipedia page, among other places. [8]

However she has been heavily criticised for her inexperience in policymaking and her apparent lack of knowledge about the American education system.

One of the Republican Senators to oppose her appointment was Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who stated “I have serious concerns about a nominee to be secretary of education who has been so involved in one side of the equation, so immersed in the push for vouchers, that she may be unaware of what actually is successful within the public schools, and also what is broken and how to fix them.” [9]

Repeated press conferences and questions from senators, news reporters and commentators have seen DeVos unable to answer questions about current education policy or about her opinions which clarity or substance. [10] One specific example is the interview in which she did not know the difference between growth, which measures how much students have learned over a given period, and proficiency, which measures how many students reach a targeted score. [11]

 

What policies is she likely to support?

DeVos has been an explicit and repeated advocate of a number of policies and ideologies regarding education in her lifetime, and it therefore seems reasonable to assume her continued support. Some of these policies include:

Charter Schools:

DeVos favours charter schools, which are for-profit schools, which receive government funding, but run independently of the public school system. They are usually privately owned. [12] The strongest demand comes from the pirvate sector. [13]

In the past DeVos has stated that education in America is “a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. It’s a monopoly, a dead end” in a speech condemning he public school system. [14]

DeVos’ opinions about privately owned schools match up with the ‘corporate’ stance and language that has been seen to embody the Trump administration. She supports a more business-like model for running schools, believing that financial competition will fix issues with public schools: “We must open up the education industry — and let’s not kid ourselves that it isn’t an industry…” [15]

School Vouchers:

School vouchers are a system of government certificates for funding at a school chosen by the students or students’ parents that would otherwise be unaffordable. They are widely supported by proponents of ‘free market education’. [16]

Vouchers are also used widely to send children to religious schools, in a practice which attracts a great deal of controversy. The National Education Association called the idea of using state money to move a child to a religious institution ‘unconstitutional,’ though their objections were later overruled in a Supreme Court case. [17]

Calivinist Christianity:

DeVos is known to be a devout Calvinist Christian, which has influenced her opinions on education in the past. In 2001, referring to her opinions on vouchers, she stated that increased school choices led to ‘greater Kingdom gain.’ [18] She has also compared her previous advocacy work to a biblical battleground, and stated that she wants to “advance God’s kingdom.’ [19]

DeVos would by no means be the only American politician to view their work through a religious lens. Indeed Trump’s cabinet now has many pro-Christian figures, including Jeff Session who told the press that the Supreme Court must not be a secular entity. [20 (video)]

However some commentators are uncomfortable with the interplay between DeVos’ personal religious beliefs and her attitudes towards education policy, fearing that she may favour private religious schools through her proposed voucher system. [21]

Student loans and educational debt

As yet little is known about DeVos’ stance on student loans. In written answers to questions posed by Senator Patty Murray (Democrat, Washington), DeVos criticised both the rising cost of university education and the over-reliance on ‘bricks and mortar education,’ suggesting instead that other vocational options should be made more readily available. [22]

Regarding loans, it seems likely that DeVos will follow the most typical Republican stance. The Obama administration moved student debt out of private banks (guaranteed by the government) and into a scheme run by Direct Loans, which could be owned and regulated by the state more easily. This has been criticised by Republicans widely as being inhibiting to the free market and negatively affecting private banks. [23]

Loans have been the area DeVos has consistently struggled to provide clear answers on, making a number of public errors in statistics, which have yet to be attributed to either DeVos or her team. [24] However, DeVos is known to have financial holdings and investments in student loan debt collecting agencies and companies, which could be seen as a conflict of interest. [25 (PDF)]

Guns in schools

When questioned by Senator Chris Murphy (Democrat, Connecticut) about the policy on guns in schools, DeVos gave a statement regarding the need for firearms and violent weapons as a means of defence against grizzly bear attacks.

A video of her statement is available here.

bus

Does Betsy DeVos support gay conversion therapy?

Betsy DeVos is also known to have links to anti-LGBTQ groups. One such link is the fact that she was the Vice-President of the Edgar & Elsa Prince Foundation, which is run by her mother. This group has donated more than $5million to ‘gay conversion therapy’ group Focus on the Family. Focus on the Family also opposes non-discrimination legislation designed to protect LGBTQ people, as well as campaigning against marriage equality and same-sex adoption. [10]

For reference, ‘gay conversion therapy’ is actually still practised in the US- you can find a good Wikipedia article on twenty-first-century American practices here, which will lead you to further reading. Gay conversion therapy is not known to have any scientific basis, and has been alternately described as ‘pseudoscience’ and ‘outright cruelty.’

In 2012, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO is the World Health Organization’s regional office for the Americas) released a statement cautioning against services that purport to “cure” people with non-heterosexual sexual orientations as they lack medical justification and represent a serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people, and noted that the global scientific and professional consensus is that homosexuality is a normal and natural variation of human sexuality and cannot be regarded as a pathological condition.


If you have questions about this article or a suggestion for the next edition of ‘Bare Facts’ then get in touch. You can leave a comment here, or find The Slow Pulse on twitter, tumblr or facebook, or email more privately at theslowpulseblog@gmail.com

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