Betsy DeVos and I are about as close to enemies as two advocates for children could be, and about as different as two white Midwestern women have ever been. We both believe in the power of education, but we see the purpose of education very differently. DeVos has been nominated by President Trump to be the Secretary of Education. When I watched her confirmation hearing, I was appalled by many of her statements, which were unprepared at best, and clueless at worst. As a public school student, I am trying to wrestle with what it would be like to have DeVos as the Secretary of Education.
The gap between DeVos’ views and my own is wide. She supports private school vouchers, competition between schools, and decreased government regulation in education. In contrast, I believe that taking money from public schools to fund independently-run private schools will not fix any problems. More choices for schools does not lead to better schools, as the negative effects of DeVos’ influence on Detroit schools illustrates. Instead, we should give public schools the resources they require to succeed, and pursue effective reforms. While she says she sympathizes with gun violence victims, DeVos shamefully refuses to support federal gun control initiatives that protect students from gun violence, bizarrely citing “potential grizzlies.” Additionally, I find Devos’ ties to anti-LGBTQ+ rights organizations deeply troubling. Her lack of support for federal efforts to prevent sexual assault deeply disturbs me, and so does her ignorance about disabled students’ rights.
Our disagreements may stem from the contrasts in our backgrounds. DeVos attended private religious schools in Michigan, while I am a public school student in Wisconsin. Her net worth is over $5.1 billion, which, without getting into specifics, I will just say is approximately $5.1 billion more than mine. She has no experience teaching and little knowledge about the specifics of education. In fact, unlike DeVos, I am familiar with the difference between student growth and student proficiency. DeVos has been a former chair of the Republican party of Michigan, and is a top conservative donor. On the other hand, my political advocacy has consisted of less influential actions, such as calling my representatives to voice my concerns.
My passion for the politics of education began a couple years ago when I was struck by the inequality in my own city, Milwaukee. We pioneered the first school voucher program twenty-six years ago, and we have one of the biggest gaps in quality of schools. What zip code you’re born into often determines the resources and opportunities you receive. A good education is a privilege when it should be a right. Like me, DeVos is concerned about low-income children. In fact, this is where her belief in private school vouchers comes from. She has explained that, when her children were young, she and her husband visited a private school with low-income students who were struggling to pay the tuition: “Well, that touched home. Dick and I became increasingly committed to helping other parents—parents from low-income families in particular. If we could choose the right school for our kids, it only seemed fair that they could do the same for theirs.” DeVos and I both want to improve education for low-income children–we just have very different ideas of what that looks like.
DeVos and my different religious beliefs helped form our opposing political opinions. She said in a 2001 interview that her efforts to use her financial and political influence to advance conservative ideals in education is motivated by the desire “to confront the culture in which we all live today in ways that will continue to help advance God’s Kingdom.” I too am inspired by my faith. Jewish ideals such as tikkun olam (repairing the world) prompt me to fight for justice and equality. But my experience as a religious minority has informed my strong belief in the separation between church and state, and makes me very worried about DeVos’ agenda. I believe that providing public funds to religious schools is inappropriate. It is especially concerning to me that many religious schools receive public funds while promoting homophobia and other offensive and discriminatory teachings.
After learning about DeVos’ background, I will say that I’m impressed by her commitment and persistence. However, I’m troubled by the results of her actions, which have created more choices for students, but not better ones. It does seem to me that her intent is to make things better, but I think she has gone about it the wrong way. Looking at the reasons why she was nominated, it’s clear that it wasn’t educational, work, or even personal experience. Therefore, as Senator Bernie Sanders suggested, I do think her $200 million dollars in political donations to the Republican party was the reason for her appointment. As a student, I am baffled by her answers to many of the questions she was asked at her hearing. It showed that not only did she lack the knowledge, but she didn’t even bother to cram the night before. I hope that if she is confirmed as Secretary of Education, DeVos will be a leader for all American students, 90% of whom attend public school. She needs to educate herself on laws and policies. She must reconcile different groups’ beliefs while first and foremost being committed to kids’ learning. I hope that DeVos and I can find some common ground in this way as education reformers. After all, we Midwestern women are nothing if not pragmatic.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Biskowitz, Sarah. "Get Educated." 3 February 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 13, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/get-educated>.