Betsy DeVos: An existential threat

According to a recent New York Times article, Betsy DeVos has drawn out more contention from voters than any of Trump’s cabinet nominees, and perhaps more than any in modern history. This is quite an accomplishment, considering the insider network of billionaire anti-government, underqualified, ethically challenged and conflict of interest-riddled cast of characters put forward. Senators’ offices are overwhelmed by an unprecedented number of calls, emails, and, in some cases, even live protests. Some Senators have expressed puzzlement. They see cabinet appointees as the right and jurisdiction of the executive, with oversight by Senate, and not the domain of the electorate. What irritates Americans so much about Betsy DeVos?

Although it is not really my aim to recap the list of reasons why she should not be confirmed, a few glaring truths are worth noting. She has donated as much as $200 million to the Republican party. She has deep financial conflicts of interest — as many as 102 identifiable conflicts, according to a recent analysis. She is heavily invested in Neurocore, a company that profits from completely unproven treatments for ADHD and other behavioral issues. She is woefully ignorant of the most basic policy issues, such as the distinction between growth and proficiency models of education. And she has no experience in public education. At all. Not as a student, not as a parent, not as a teacher, principal, superintendent, or an administrator.

The shocking truth is that perhaps any single one of these things should disqualify her. But on this last point, teachers across America are irate. They are insulted. And they are scared.

DeVos is worth $5.3 billion, making her family the 88th wealthiest in the country. The median salary of a teacher is around $45,000. Her net worth amounts to 117,000 times the annual pay of an average teacher. (For comparison, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, is worth $785 million. The average software engineer makes $122,000, for a differential of 6342).

Starting salaries can be much lower — as low as $35,000 in some states. This amount is close to Medicare and food-stamp eligibility for a family of four (about 130% of the federal poverty line of $24,500). Of course, the truth is almost no teachers support families on one salary. Two teachers making $90,000 a year can achieve a comfortable middle-class income, but with two kids and the average cost of childcare in the US close to $1000, the second salary would leave only an extra $700 or so after taxes. And forget about saving for college, or investing, or anything extra, really.

These are unbridgeable worlds. A person like DeVos cannot possibly understand the everyday struggles and experiences of middle-class teachers. But it is not the money, per se, that is so insulting to teachers. It is her complete and utter lack of experience. In order to make these salaries, teachers at the secondary level must obtain both an undergraduate degree in a subject area and an additional sequence of teacher education courses. They must pay fees and take licensure exams, and if they change states, do it all over again. They must take additional courses for continuing education credit, and in some states, like mine (Kentucky) are required to obtain a Masters degree.

Teachers are among the most highly educated and lowest-paid employees in the country. But they teach because they find it rewarding. They can touch the lives of young people, inspire them, make a difference. They do this work under the burden of dwindling budgets, in spite of Trump’s inaugural assertion that schools are “flush with cash.” If you happen to teach in the arts, you might travel to multiple schools, share an office, and use your own computer — even in a relatively wealthy district. And they struggle to do this under the burden of sometimes uninvolved and even neglectful parents on the one hand and watchful administrators on the other, beholden to federal rules for accountability and performance that may or may not actually be supported by education science. And if the students don’t live up to the standards, it’s the teacher’s fault. It’s almost a recipe for a lack of success, and yet so many hard-working and dedicated teachers excel in the face of these challenges.

If DeVos were to have her way, parents could use tax dollars for private schools and charters, further gutting the tax base that props up dwindling budgets for salaries and classroom materials and accelerating the declining performance in the most struggling of schools. Meanwhile, DeVos refuses to indicate charters will be held to the same accountability as public schools, providing absolutely no guarantee that students would receive a higher quality education in any measurable sort of way. By the same token, there is no evidence that public schools would not continue to be held accountable, essentially guaranteeing the federal government justification for shuttering underperforming public schools and funneling public money into private charters — many of them for-profit schools, operating under no accountability.

This is a sure way to gut public education and privatize it, potentially for the profit of a few. It will cost many jobs. Private charters operating without accountability may not be required to hire certified teachers or pay them living wages. Their boss will be someone who has profited from selling pseudo-scientific educational supplements, operating completely outside the scientific mainstream, at a time when America’s scientific standing in the world is already threatened. Teachers will suffer, students will suffer, the country will suffer.

This is a bipartisan issue. For Jefferson, the dream of democracy was rooted in an educated electorate, and it was thus the duty of the Republic to provide high-quality, free public education. Teachers are Republicans and Democrats and are unified in their opposition to DeVos. Parents should be as well. Betsy DeVos is the swamp that Trump promised to drain. His supporters should be outraged.

The fact that a well-connected billionaire can waltz into the White House ahead of the hundreds of thousands of teachers that have paid their dues, learning the system, suffering under the burden of low wages, uninvolved parents, and harried administrators, is a stark, vivid illustration of the waning democracy middle America is grasping to hold to on to right now. This is the threat of a DeVos confirmation. It’s deeply psychological. It’s symbolic. It’s existential to the hope for democracy.

There is near-unanimous opposition to DeVos from every corner of America short of 50 Republican Senators that may still vote for her Monday. If yours does, don’t forget it.

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