The Trump transition team hit the senate with back to back confirmation hearings, a strategy some are saying was designed to take the heat off any one particular appointee. Whether this was the intention of the administration is debatable, but there’s no question that Betsy DeVos’ delayed confirmation hearing attracted a lot of attention from both sides of hotly contested issues.
The main complaints lodged against DeVos’ cabinet nomination are that she has no education or experience with public schools, either in a career capacity or as a student or parent of student. She also has no experience with government funded student aid such as the loan program or Pell grants. DeVos’ family has also contributed massive amounts of money to the Republican Party over the years.
Her K-12 policy proposals are highly contested from both sides of the debate, while her higher education policies have been vague at best. Despite widespread opposition, DeVos has been confirmed, so what exactly should we expect with Betsy DeVos taking over education?
DeVos is a proponent of the school waiver program. In essence, a school waiver program ties school funding to the children who attend. Families would be able to choose any school, public, private or charter, and the taxpayer funding would follow them.
DeVos and friends say that school choice is the answer to failing public school systems that students have no choice in attending. Critics say the plan has been proven not to work and instead moves even more funding from underfunded public schools while not requiring private schools to accept all students.
A recent segment on NPR highlighted the major problem in the school choice waiver debate. Those for school waivers and those against school waivers both want to provide students with an education they can depend on.
However, both sides also seem to be interpreting the facts differently. DeVos and friends say the evidence suggests charter schools and waiver programs will solve our problems. Critics say the evidence suggests exactly the opposite.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has been in place in one form or another since 1975. The main purpose of the legislation is to make sure that all students with disabilities are able to obtain a free public education. Schools have to make basic accommodations for students who have disabilities, such as altered curriculum or adaptive equipment.
These resources cost money, and underfunded schools occasionally resist providing the appropriate equipment. Private schools are not required to follow IDEA, and have the ability to kick out students who require special circumstances.
This is important to the school choice waiver program debate, because if only public schools are forced to provide accommodations for students with disabilities, then public schools may become little more than a holding place for those students. If more students chose to leave public schools and take their funding with them, less and less money will be left for public schools to accommodate those not able to attend private school.
In a strange comment at her hearing, DeVos claimed that states ought to be able to decide for themselves how to handle students with disabilities.
When it comes to higher education, DeVos has been a bit vague on what her plans will be. In an exchange with Senator Elizabeth Warren, DeVos committed to protecting against fraud and abuse within higher education, but would not commit to the rules currently in place. The Republican platform has been opposed to the gainful employment rule, a measure that penalizes for-profit colleges when graduates are not able to pay back their loans right away.
Senators like Warren have pushed the importance of this rule, citing examples such as the defunct Trump University founded by President Trump as examples of institutions that consumers need to be protected from.
The vague answers from DeVos give us little insight into how her plans would affect higher education and the federal student loan program - for example if she wishes to turn the lending mainly back to private lenders and banks or introduce federal student loan refinancing. However, last minute moves from the Obama administration can shed some light on what we might expect.
The last memo from the previous administration’s office of Federal Student Aid announced that an error had been corrected that had previously miscalculated a metric used as justification for the regulations imposed against some for-profit colleges.
This midnight error-correcting will likely give DeVos and the Trump administration a reason to completely audit the Federal Student Aid office. A comprehensive look at the state of the department will likely preclude a more concrete announcement on what DeVos plans to do with the student loan crisis among other things.