As ethics questions surface about Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s controversial pick to head the Department of Education, her worrisome pronouncements on education policy also need a full airing.
With DeVos’s confirmation hearing looming next week, The Wall Street Journal has reported that she is an indirect investor in a firm that specializes in student loan refinancing, its fate directly tied to decisions by the agency she would oversee.
And that investment is just one small piece of her portfolio. Her sprawling holdings need a proper scrubbing from the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics, which reviews the financial disclosures of Cabinet nominees. And it’s unclear if that vetting will happen in time for the confirmation hearing.
The agency has already complained that the Senate’s rapid-fire confirmation process, now slightly delayed in DeVos’s case, is exerting “undue pressure on OGE’s staff and ethics officials to rush through these important reviews.”
Even more concerning, though, is DeVos’s approach to education.
In Massachusetts, the charter school sector has proved successful, in no small part, because the state has created a strong system of oversight and accountability: It is difficult to get a charter here, and schools that fail are shuttered.
But DeVos and her husband Dick, widely considered the most powerful Republican couple in Michigan politics, pressed for a free-market system in extremis in their state. About 80 percent of Michigan charters are operated by for-profit companies. Schools compete for students with offers of laptops and bicycles. And student churn is a way of life.
Performance has not been as poor as some of DeVos’s critics suggest. Nearly half of Detroit charters perform better than traditional public schools, according to one study, with close to half performing at the same level, and a small number doing worse.
But as the Massachusetts example suggests, charters can do far better. And DeVos’s ideologically driven opposition to the sort of changes that could deliver improvement is disquieting.
Last year, for instance, she used her leverage as a major political donor to defeat legislation that would have allowed only the most successful Michigan charters and traditional public schools to expand.
DeVos has also been a vocal proponent of school vouchers, which have proved a drag on academic performance. And she has evinced little concern for the traditional public schools that are the main concern of the Department of Education.
DeVos has no experience in a classroom or in education administration. Some of the other hard-charging reformers Trump was considering have done the work and produced better results. Next week, senators must grill DeVos on this basic question: Why is she, of all people, the best choice to guide the education of millions of American children?