Editor’s Note: The confirmation of Betsy DeVos was not supported by everyone committed to improving public education, and in particular, not even to everyone committed to breaking the grip of the teachers union on public education. Rishawn Biddle is someone who vehemently opposed DeVos, but is equally vehement in his condemnation of the corruption and mismanagement that powerful unions have wrought on public education. In this article, Biddle states “There will be divides between various camps in the reform movement. In some cases, reformers will have to agree to disagree. Other times, there will be open conflict… What needs to be done is to make those conflicts productive so that it crystallizes, clarifies, reveals, humbles, and creates so that we can build better worlds for our children.” Biddle is right. In that spirit, his perspective is vital.
There should be no surprise that Betsy DeVos was confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education this afternoon by the Senate. Nor should anyone be surprised that her confirmation required a vote by Vice President Mike Pence in his role as ceremonial leader of the federal upper house. DeVos has managed the astounding feat of gaining more votes against her confirmation than any previous appointee to the post.
Also not shocking, of course, is the visceral reaction to DeVos’ confirmation from those who supported and opposed her, especially conservative, centrist Democrat and civil rights-oriented reformers in an increasingly divided movement.
On one side, American Federation for Children, the school choice advocate DeVos previously chaired before her nomination, declared that her confirmation is “a time of opportunity and transformation”, while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education sent out tweets thanking Senate Republicans (other than Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski) for voting for her. Meanwhile Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute celebrated DeVos’ nomination, accusing opponents of her nomination of “being unfair to her”.
On the other side, DeVos’ immediate predecessor as education secretary, current Education Trust President John King, hoped that DeVos would “prove us wrong”, while House Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Democrat Bobby Scott declared that she “failed to make a credible case” for getting her job. Catherine Brown, the education czar for the Center for American Progress (which has emerged as the leading school reform outfit opposed to DeVos’ confirmation — and garnered the criticism of conservative reformers for its stridency), proclaimed that DeVos’ confirmation was an example of how the Amway heiress’ fortune bought her support despite being “Unprepared, unaware, and unqualified.”
Your editor has already spent months explaining why DeVos shouldn’t be Secretary of Education. Certainly her strong support for expanding school choice is much appreciated here on these pages. But transforming American public education requires more than championing choice. A Secretary of Education, who runs the agency charged with ensuring that all children, especially those black and brown, gain high-quality education must be strident and vocal against those who want to subject the most-vulnerable to the rarely-soft bigotry of low expectations, oppose bigotry even from her counterparts within an administration, and have curiosity and grasp of the policy and practice issues within American public education. DeVos has exhibited none of this so far, and unlike King, your editor has no expectation that this state of affairs will change.
This, by the way, extends to other appointees whom DeVos is bringing to the Department of Education. Certainly some of the people coming to work for the agency — including former Thomas B. Fordham Institute staffer Michael Brickman, and Matt Frendewey (who was running American Federation for Children’s communications department) are people who have proven their commitment to helping all children succeed. But past performance isn’t enough — especially when choosing to work for an administration that has denigrated the families of immigrant children, Latino children, and those of the Muslim faith. Your editor prays for them to do right by all children — and so should you. They will need every prayer for discernment we can give.
But in any case, DeVos now holds the office. Which means that reformers must continue to do the hard work transforming American public education regardless of what she and her appointees do — and, given the Trump Administration’s professed and public bigotry against those who aren’t white, in spite of them.
This starts by remembering our mission: Building brighter futures for every child, no matter who they are or where they live. As civil rights activists of the last century understood, there will always be administrations, elected officials and interest groups who will be hostile against helping all children succeed. What matters more is that we work smartly, strategically, and stridently for children as well as the families who love and care for them.
It starts by playing the Capitol Hill political game. Over the next four years, there will be regulations that will be drafted and finessed through administrative rulemaking and red-lining; legislation that will be deliberated and debated; and meetings that will be held quietly and privately. Reformers must get into every step of these processes, and master every arcane rule that can either stop legislation from passing, or lead to its passage.
This means remembering that the most-important battles over overhauling American public education lies not in Washington, but in the statehouses and local communities throughout the nation. Now, more than ever, reformers must build stronger ties to families and communities (including immigrant households, single-parent families, grandparents, and minority households).
It also means working more-closely with Black Lives Matter activists and others working to reform the criminal justice systems that also harm so many of our children. And it even means working with immigrant rights groups and branches of the American Civil Liberties Union that are fighting stridently against efforts by the Trump Administration to deport undocumented immigrants as well as working to protect children covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Finally, it means advancing the solutions needed to help every child succeed. From overhauling how we recruit, train, manage and compensate teachers, to expanding choice and Parent Power, to advancing stronger accountability (and ensuring that every institution and adult is providing high quality education to our children), there is much to be done, much we can do, and not one minute to waste.
Along the way, there will be divides between various camps in the reform movement. In some cases, reformers will have to agree to disagree. Other times, there will be open conflict. Some within the movement will leave it because they feel that colleagues with different ideologies are on the wrong side. This is to be expected. What must be accepted among all reformers is that there will be conflict. What needs to be done is to make those conflicts productive so that it crystallizes, clarifies, reveals, humbles, and creates so that we can build better worlds for our children.
Now that the battle over DeVos’ confirmation is over, let’s continue working for brighter futures for every child. Especially in this age, they need us to do all we can for them.
About the author: RiShawn Biddle is Editor and Publisher of Dropout Nation — the leading commentary Web site on education reform — a columnist for Rare and The American Spectator, award-winning editorialist, speechwriter, communications consultant and education policy advisor. More importantly, he is a tireless advocate for improving the quality of K-12 education for every child. Biddle combines journalism, research and advocacy to bring insight on the nation’s education crisis and rally families and others to reform American public education.