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DICKERSON: Unprepared, and undeterred to serve as education secretary

• Jan 30, 2017 at 2:00 PM

Even a truncated confirmation hearing designed to limit the nominee's exposure couldn't conceal the myriad ways in which Republican mega-donor Betsy DeVos is unprepared for the responsibility she is about to assume as President Donald Trump's choice to head the U.S. Department of Education.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, who chairs the committee responsible for vetting the nomination, allotted Democratic committee members just five minutes each to grill DeVos. But even that abbreviated scrutiny revealed some disturbing deficits in her basic knowledge of the department's responsibilities and authority:

She said it should be "up to the states" to make sure public schools meet the needs of disabled students, and appeared to be unaware of the federal law that establishes both requirements and penalties for schools that fail to meet them.

She appeared confused by a question seeking her views on the debate between reformers who want schools to enforce a single standard of competency and those who want to incentivize academic growth.

Asked whether she would enforce federal rules that require private career academies to provide students with marketable workplace skills, DeVos promised only that she would review such rules.

None of these responses seem likely to dissuade Republican senators from providing the simple majority DeVos needs for confirmation as education secretary, all but assuring a protracted series of policy clashes between an education establishment that wants to strengthen federal support for public schools and free-market ideologues who want to divert resources to private and parochial schools.

DeVos told committee members she would strive "to strengthen public education for all students," but she refused to rule out funding cuts or support for initiatives to privatize some educational functions. Alexander insisted DeVos' commitment to school choice put her squarely in the mainstream of public opinion, and said her outsider status would facilitate her efforts to challenge failing public schools.

But he is conflating charter schools, which operate successfully in many states, with school vouchers, which would allow parents to spend public education dollars on private or parochial school tuition. More than two-thirds of the states explicitly forbid vouchers; Michigan voters resoundingly rejected a voucher initiative championed by DeVos and her family.

If she exploits her bully pulpit as education secretary to renew her campaign for diverting public education dollars to private and parochial school operators, DeVos will be embracing a policy that enjoys neither an evidence-based rationale nor widespread public support.

Right now, Americans can only pray that her still-inchoate enthusiasm for school choice will not effectively doom tens of millions of children to substandard public schools that have been starved of resources and responsible government oversight.

You may contact Brian Dickerson at the Detroit Free Press at bdickerson@freepress.com.

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