Up­ris­ing presents chal­lenge for DeVos

A groundswell of sup­port for pub­lic schools threat­ens nom­i­na­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY EMMA BROWN emma.brown@wash­post.com Ale­jan­dra Matos and Ed O’Keefe con­trib­uted to this story.

If any­one can ex­plain why Betsy DeVos has be­come the most em­bat­tled nom­i­nee ever for ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary, it’s Anna Caudill, Ten­nessee mother of two.

Caudill has a son with dis­abil­i­ties. Her pub­lic school district did such a poor job ed­u­cat­ing him, she says, that she is su­ing in fed­eral court. She can’t af­ford a pri­vate school, so she is home-school­ing him. She’s ex­actly the kind of par­ent who would seem aligned with DeVos, who be­lieves in us­ing pub­lic funds to help par­ents pay for pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion.

But Caudill strongly op­poses DeVos.

“Vouch­ers don’t come with any over­sight of the schools in which they’re spent,” Caudill said. “They put the par­ent in the po­si­tion of trad­ing a child’s civil rights for money.”

This 44-year-old is part of the small army of par­ents, teach­ers and oth­ers around the coun­try who have risen up against DeVos as Pres­i­dent Trump’s nom­i­nee heads to­ward a breath­tak­ingly close con­fir­ma­tion vote. They come from places as di­verse as ru­ral Alaska, in­ner-city Detroit and — like Caudill — sub­ur­ban Nashville.

They have held protests and clogged Sen­ate phone lines with calls to send a mes­sage: They don’t want an ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary who preaches es­cape from pub­lic schools. They want one who un­der­stands pub­lic schools and will work to im­prove them.

On Fri­day, the Repub­li­can-led Sen­ate ad­vanced the nom­i­na­tion to­ward fi­nal ac­tion, likely this week, that could re­sult in a 50-50 split. That would force Vice Pres­i­dent Pence to cast a rare tiebreak­ing vote.

Repub­li­cans say op­po­si­tion to DeVos is the work of teach­ers unions and their toad­ies in the Demo­cratic Party.

“Or­ga­nized la­bor is pulling out all the stops in a last-ditch ef­fort to re­sist ac­count­abil­ity and deny equal ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­nity to poor fam­i­lies, mi­nori­ties and un­der­rep­re­sented com­mu­ni­ties,” said Ed Pa­tru, spokesman for a group called Friends of Betsy DeVos.

It is true that unions have mo­bi­lized against DeVos, spread­ing the mes­sage that she is an en­emy of pub­lic schools. But many oth­ers have joined the op­po­si­tion.

“There is plenty that can be done to fix our pub­lic schools, but her ap­proach is wrong,” said Katy Pape, 30, of the District, who works for a com­pany that ad­vises busi­nesses. Pape showed up to protest DeVos on Capi­tol Hill one chilly re­cent Sun­day, but she isn’t a teacher and she doesn’t have chil­dren. She just at­tended pub­lic schools, like the vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans — and she be­lieves in them.

DeVos, a Michi­gan bil­lion­aire and ma­jor Repub­li­can donor, has for three decades used her wealth and po­lit­i­cal clout to ad­vo­cate giv­ing par­ents tax­payer-funded av­enues to get out of pub­lic schools that aren’t serv­ing them well. Many on the right have em­braced her ap­proach, call­ing her an out­sider who has been will­ing to take on the ed­u­ca­tion es­tab­lish­ment and make rad­i­cal changes.

But her nom­i­na­tion has re­vealed what Terry Moe, a Stan­ford po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor and school voucher sup­porter, calls the na­tion’s “pub­lic school ide­ol­ogy”: Many Amer­i­cans have a deep al­le­giance to pub­lic schools, flawed as they may be. And many don’t ap­pre­ci­ate threats to what they con­sider a fun­da­men­tal civic in­sti­tu­tion.

For decades sur­veys have found that al­though the pub­lic holds a dim view of U.S. ed­u­ca­tion writ broadly, peo­ple are gen­er­ally pleased with their own lo­cal pub­lic schools. Polling by PDK In­ter­na­tional, an as­so­ci­a­tion of ed­u­ca­tion pro­fes­sion­als, shows that Amer­i­cans be­lieve the No. 1 chal­lenge fac­ing pub­lic schools is lack of ad­e­quate fund­ing.

Trump’s pledge to ex­pand fund­ing for vouch­ers and char­ter schools and his nom­i­na­tion of DeVos have cap­tured the at­ten­tion of these pub­lic school back­ers, said Joshua Starr, PDK’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, who is a for­mer Mont­gomery County schools su­per­in­ten­dent. “They’re like, ‘Wait. How is this go­ing to work? They’re go­ing to take money from us.’ ”

DeVos said dur­ing her con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing that, as ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary, she would be a strong ad­vo­cate for pub­lic schools. But she also left open the pos­si­bil­ity that she would cut ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing and seek to pri­va­tize pub­lic schools.

That un­set­tled many se­na­tors, par­tic­u­larly those from ru­ral states that voted for Trump where there are few al­ter­na­tives to pub­lic schools. Repub­li­cans from Alaska and Maine have bro­ken party lines to op­pose DeVos. Mod­er­ate Democrats also said they could not sup­port her.

“I can’t go home and ex­plain it, can’t go home and sell it,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). “Our fund­ing mech­a­nism is so frag­ile in a ru­ral state like West Vir­ginia, you take any money away from that and di­vert it some­where else, then some of the sys­tems will col­lapse.”

DeVos was not widely known be­fore her Jan. 17 con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing, but video clips of her stum­bles that evening went vi­ral, turn­ing her into a meme overnight.

She ar­gued that schools should not be sub­ject to a fed­eral ban on guns be­cause they may need to guard against “po­ten­tial grizzlies.” And she had trou­ble an­swer­ing ba­sic pol­icy ques­tions, feed­ing the charge that — given her lack of per­sonal and pro­fes­sional ex­pe­ri­ence with pub­lic schools — she is un­qual­i­fied to serve.

Many Repub­li­can se­na­tors de­fend DeVos as a con­ser­va­tive who would scale back the fed­eral role in schools, re­turn­ing the Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment — which ex­er­cised un­prece­dented power un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama — to its right­ful place. She also has sup­port among Repub­li­can gover­nors and Democrats such as for­mer D.C. mayor An­thony Wil­liams, a voucher pro­po­nent.

“She’ll be an ex­cel­lent ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary, in my judg­ment, and an im­por­tant one for this coun­try,” Sen. La­mar Alexan­der (R-Tenn.) said Fri­day.

Op­po­nents view DeVos as not just an­other wealthy Trump nom­i­nee with­out gov­ern­ment ex­pe­ri­ence. They say she is seek­ing a job in which her de­ci­sions will af­fect thou­sands of schools serv­ing mil­lions of kids.

Laura Beck of Austin is a 45year-old mother of two who said she had never been po­lit­i­cally ac­tive un­til two weeks ago, when she learned about DeVos. “This one af­fects our chil­dren,” she said. “You might say you should care about things that af­fect global warm­ing, or na­tional se­cu­rity. But when it af­fects chil­dren . . . it’s heart­string, mama-bear pro­tec­tion­ism that you’re see­ing.”

DeVos took heat for her sug­ges­tion dur­ing the hear­ing that states should de­cide whether to en­force a land­mark 1975 fed­eral law, the In­di­vid­u­als with Dis­abil­i­ties Ed­u­ca­tion Act, or IDEA, that pro­tects stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties. Later, she said she had been “con­fused” about the law, rais­ing red flags for civil rights ad­vo­cates and par­ents of chil­dren with spe­cial needs from both po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

About 6.5 mil­lion chil­dren from ages 3 to 21 re­ceive spe­cial-ed­u­ca­tion ser­vices un­der IDEA, or 13 per­cent of pub­lic school stu­dents. For schools that re­ceive fed­eral fund­ing, ig­nor­ing the law is not an op­tion.

DeVos’s stum­bles on IDEA were among the rea­sons Sen. Su­san Collins (R-Maine) gave for op­pos­ing the nom­i­nee. But Sen. Johnny Isak­son (R-Ga.), whose wife is a spe­cial-ed­u­ca­tion teacher, said he re­ceived as­sur­ances from DeVos that she would en­force the fed­eral law. He plans to vote for her.

“I’m go­ing to work as hard as I can to make sure where she is short in knowl­edge as sec­re­tary, I’m go­ing to stand by her side to give her that knowl­edge,” Isak­son said.

Shortly af­ter her con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing, she clar­i­fied that she would en­force fed­eral laws re­lated to spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion. She said she also be­lieved in ex­pand­ing par­ents’ choices, point­ing to an Ohio pro­gram that re­quires stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties to give up their fed­eral IDEA rights to qual­ify for a voucher.

Tera My­ers, the mother of a stu­dent with Down syn­drome who has par­tic­i­pated in that Ohio pro­gram, praised DeVos as a “com­pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cate for chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties.”

My­ers wrote in the Hill news­pa­per that IDEA of­ten fails to live up to its prom­ise, and that DeVos’s ad­vo­cacy for pri­vate-school vouch­ers had helped chil­dren such as her son find a bet­ter school. “I know that Betsy DeVos has a big heart and deep con­cern for all stu­dents in Amer­ica, es­pe­cially the most vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren,” My­ers wrote.

But Caudill, the Ten­nessee mother of two, sees vouch­ers far dif­fer­ently. She has done the math, and it doesn’t work for her fam­ily.

Her son, Fu, whom she adopted from China, has a joint dis­or­der that makes it dif­fi­cult for him to walk or write quickly. He also has a lan­guage im­pair­ment.

Through a Ten­nessee pro­gram for stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties, she could re­ceive about $6,300 a year for pri­vate-school tuition, tu­tor­ing or other ed­u­ca­tion ser­vices. But she would have to waive Fu’s rights un­der IDEA to a free and ap­pro­pri­ate pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion.

Even then, she wouldn’t be able to af­ford a pri­vate school. Her fam­ily of four lives on in­come of $60,000 a year and has an­nual med­i­cal ex­penses of about $13,000. Tuition at many faith-based schools hov­ers around $10,000, Caudill said, while a spe­cial­ized school that could pro­vide the ser­vices Fu needs would cost $40,000.

Rather than ex­pand­ing a pro­gram use­less to her, Caudill said, she wants the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to give pub­lic schools more money to help stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties. Congress has for decades promised to give states 40 per­cent of the cost of pro­vid­ing spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion, but it has never come close to pay­ing that much.

“On av­er­age, I think pub­lic schools are far bet­ter armed to do what IDEA ex­pects of them,” Caudill said. “It needs to be a sit­u­a­tion where the feds put their money where their mouth is.”

MELINA MARA/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Many an­swers Betsy DeVos gave at her con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing last month be­came instant memes on the In­ter­net. The Sen­ate is ex­pected to vote on DeVos’s nom­i­na­tion as ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary this week.

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