Politics

ED Nominee DeVos Faces Evenly Split Senate as Two GOP Lawmakers Defect

DeVos

Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of the Department of Education (ED), could be the most controversial pick for that post in American history.

After her confirmation hearing and narrow approval Tuesday before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP), two Republican senators — Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — said they would vote against DeVos when the vote goes before the full Senate. That would put the Senate at an even, 50-50 split, assuming all remaining Republicans vote “yes” along party lines, and Democrats vote “no” accordingly.

In case of a tie, Vice President Mike Pence would have to cast the tie-breaking vote — an event that has never before occurred for a cabinet nominee.

Previous to DeVos, the tightest vote to confirm an ED nominee was John B. King, Jr., who won approval from the Senate on a 49-40 vote, according to the Congressional Record.

On Wednesday, Eli Broad, the prominent Los Angeles philanthropist and fellow billionaire, sent a letter to United States senators asking them to vote against DeVos as the head of the ED.

“I believe she is unprepared and unqualified for the position,” Broad wrote, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Indeed, with Betsy DeVos at the helm of the U.S. Department of Education, much of the good work that has been accomplished to improve public education for all of America’s children could be undone.”

Like DeVos, Broad is an impassioned supporter of charter school expansion, and has funded efforts to increase the number of charter schools in Los Angeles and nationwide.

DeVos, a billionaire from Michigan, is former head of the American Federation for Children, which supports school vouchers, private education and other forms of school choice. She never attended public school, never sent her children there and appeared confused during hearings that there was a federal law covering students with disabilities.

On Wednesday Broad tweeted: “We must have a Secretary of Education who believes in public education & the need to keep public schools public.” 

In education technology, one potential conflict of interest is DeVos’ decision to maintain her multi-million-dollar investment in Neurocore, a Michigan-based biofeedback company that aims to help children with ADHD, autism, depression and other afflictions do better in school.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that DeVos may have plagiarized from a former Obama Administration official written answers that she submitted to the HELP Committee.

“Upon initial review, many of the responses look copied and pasted from previous statements, or are simple reiterations of the law and not true responses at all,” said Sen. Patty Murray (WA), the top Democrat fighting DeVos’ nomination.

Also, Education Week reported Thursday that DeVos used cherry-picked graduation rates for online charter schools, citing numbers that were significantly higher than those used for state and federal accountability purposes. The figures and language cited by DeVos directly mirror those used in a report from K12 Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit operator of cyber charter schools, in which DeVos was a former investor.

For example, according to the Ohio education department, the Ohio Virtual Academy has a four-year graduation rate of 53 percent. DeVos put the figure at 92 percent.

Here are some other graduation rates she provided, and the figures used by each school’s state for accountability purposes:

  • The Idaho Virtual Academy has a 90 percent graduation rate, DeVos said. The school's most recent publicly reported figure for state accountability purposes is 33 percent.
  • The Nevada Virtual Academy has a 100 percent graduation rate, DeVos said. The school's most recent publicly reported figure for state accountability purposes is 67 percent.
  • The Oklahoma Virtual Academy has a 91 percent graduation rate, DeVos said. The school's most recent publicly reported figure for state accountability purposes is 40 percent.
  • The Utah Virtual Academy has a 96 percent graduation rate, DeVos said. The school's most recent publicly reported figure for state accountability purposes is 42 percent.

Much of the language DeVos used in her comments on cyber charters was the same as language used by K12 Inc. in its 2016 Academic Report, according to Education Week.

While DeVos is still considered likely to be confirmed as the next ED secretary, one more defection by the GOP could derail her chances. The date for the full Senate vote has not yet been determined.

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