WASHINGTON – A coalition of civil rights organizations criticized Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s nominee for education secretary, for her support of charter schools and school choice programs.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said school choice programs weaken the public school system.
“School choice is an interesting phrase because it implies that the choice that parents make is just about the school when in fact school choice really only works for those parents who have other choices – to be able to select a school across town that you think is better means that you have to have the ability to get your child to that school and the ability to pick your child up from that school,” Ifill said on a conference call with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights last week shortly before DeVos’ confirmation hearing.
“You have to have the kinds of networks that will support the child in that school. Your child most often will need to be in a situation where they don’t have special needs, where they don’t need English as a second language, where they don’t have other disabilities that require support within that school,” she added.
Ifill said the notion that every parent is free to choose any school under a school choice or voucher program is “false.”
She argued that the Department of Education’s role should be to ensure the nation’s public school system is “fully” and “equally” funded across school districts.
“Rather than impoverishing some school districts and some schools by removing parents who have the best means and the best mobility from those schools, we should be ensuring that those [public] schools are strong and provide parents with the ultimate choice, which is to send their children to their neighborhood schools, to the school that is closest to them, to the school with which they have a relationship, to the school that allows them to attend PTA meetings and be fully engaged as parents and ensure that school can provide their child with the education that child needs to be a citizen and to be successful,” she said.
Susan Henderson, executive director of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, agreed with Ifill’s assessment. She added that vouchers issued under school choice programs often do not cover the full cost of tuition at private institutions.
“It’s not free for families anymore – they are supplementing out of their own pockets tuition costs or the costs of services their children require, so it really becomes a bad choice for families to take the voucher,” she said.
Fatima Goss Graves, senior vice president for programs at the National Women’s Law Center, said her organization opposes DeVos’ nomination because of her “strong advocacy” for choice and her view that charter schools should have hardly any federal oversight.
“It’s not a meaningful choice for parents and for families if they don’t have the sort of baseline rights connected to it,” she said.
The civil rights activists on the call are pressing the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to fully review DeVos’ stated positions on civil rights, which they argued are a “central function” of the Education Department.
The HELP Committee said Friday that a vote on DeVos’ nomination, originally scheduled for Tuesday, has been postponed to Jan. 31.
“The committee has received Betsy DeVos’s paperwork from the Office of Government Ethics. She has completed the committee’s paperwork, answered questions for 3 ½ hours at her confirmation hearing, met privately with the members of the committee, and she will now spend the coming days answering senators’ written questions for the record,” said a spokesman for chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “We know that Betsy DeVos is a passionate defender of improving opportunities for low-income children who has committed to implement the law fixing No Child Left Behind as Congress wrote it, support public schools, and work to protect all children and students from discrimination and ensure they are educated in a safe environment.”
Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said on the opponents call last week that DeVos “does have, as has been noted, a singular lack of experience with public education in any form regardless of whether she is an educator.”
“The fact that she has not had experience either as a parent or as a student with the responsibilities of public education, nor does she appear to have the interest to learn more about that experience in advance of her decision to stand for the appointment as secretary of Education. She has a singular lack of commitment to the very agency that is now charged with the responsibility of managing,” he added.
Henderson said the activists have concerns about DeVos’ “commitment” to the office of civil rights within the department.
“She has also expressed a singular hostility to the role of government, period,” he said.
Ifill said DeVos lacks the necessary experience to serve as secretary of the department.
“Ms. DeVos has never been a public school teacher or administrator. She’s never served on the school board of a city or town. She possesses no advanced degree in teaching, education policy or administration. Ms. DeVos’ primary connection to education policy has been her ideologically charged philanthropy,” she said. “We know little about her stance when it comes to the enforcement of civil rights law – a primary responsibility of the secretary of education.”