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May 14, 2017

Secretary of Education pick sparks strong dissent from some UMass faculty

(Caroline O’Connor/ Daily Collegian)

In response to the recent confirmation of businesswoman and political contributor Betsy DeVos as the new United States secretary of education on Feb. 7, some faculty in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts of Amherst have been outspoken in their disagreement of the newly appointed.

Breaking historic precedent regarding the cabinet-member approval process, Vice President Mike Pence broke a 50-50 tie, following the defections of two Republican senators who voted against DeVos with Democrats.

Despite efforts by Senate Democrats to lambast her qualifications and inexperience in public education, the protests against DeVos appear to have been in vain. The focus of the Democrats’ protests centered upon DeVos’s lack of government experience and the fact that she has never attended a public school herself.

“Like anybody who’s been a proponent of public education, her appointment is really troubling,” said Interim Senior Associate Dean for the UMass College of Education Joseph Berger. “I don’t believe she is qualified at all [to lead a cabinet department].”

Prior to her nomination for Secretary of Education, DeVos’s political experience included work as committeewoman and then chair for the Michigan Republican Party from 1992 to 2000. DeVos also has an extensive record of monetary contributions to the Republican Party. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, “DeVos and her husband gave more than $2.75 million to candidates, parties, and PACS during the 2016 election cycle” alone.

Concern over DeVos’s confirmation was not limited strictly to her lack of political experience. DeVos is a longtime advocate for school choice through vouchers and charter schools, a fiercely partisan issue that has divided Democrats and Republicans for some time now.

“The Department of Education typically has a budget of $70 billion [annually]. Given that she is such a proponent of school vouchers and charter schools, significant resources can be more and more tied to those limited options,” said Berger.

Apprehension for many educators therefore lies in the possibility of DeVos utilizing funding for the expansion of “school-choice” programs nationwide, as opposed to allocating it toward public schools themselves. Hope for some, however, may be a new approach to education policy, following decades of relatively low performance by American students on a global scale.

“It’s concerning because there is obviously a public school issue but I don’t think the solution to that is avoiding public schools,” said undeclared freshman Casey Kelleher. “I was recently talking to a city councilmember from Boston who was a teacher. To see people like that in government, who really know what works and what doesn’t [for education], is so needed,” she added.

Kelleher, who was on a regional advisory board for the Massachusetts Board of Education in high school, shared many views with a growing national voice of students and educators, saying she “wants a new perspective, but not [DeVos’s].”

“Most educators who’ve dedicate their lives to education feel like this is an attack on public education. Most of us who engage in this kind of work are very mission-driven,” said Berger, expressing his uncertainty concerning DeVos. “This is an attack on that mission.”

Will Soltero can be reached at wsoltero@umass.edu.

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