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Civil Rights

Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Most Effective Cabinet Member? The Answer May Frighten You.

Two winters ago, Kaitlyn Kirk, one of my premier students, came into the library with her eyes glued to her phone. Headphones in, she sat down focused on what I thought was “Fortnite” or “Game of Thrones.” When our class began in the back of the library, she remained locked into her screen. I lightly tapped her shoulder, and I noticed she was streaming CNN’s coverage of the Betsy DeVos hearing. “Mrs. Caneva, listen to this. She just said that schools should have guns because there could be bear attacks.” Kaitlyn laughed and then said, “She’s not going to last.” During that initial Senate hearing, Democratic senators repeatedly questioned her on her stance on measuring student proficiency vs. growth, serving students with disabilities, equality in school accountability and guns in schools. Her answers revealed a glaring lack of knowledge of educational issues, understanding of federal and local educational policies and general preparedness for the hearing at hand. Soon afterwards, her questionable “60 Minutes” appearance solidified her substandard readiness to become secretary of education. However, fast-forward to the present day, and last she has. The duration of her term has stood the test of time, even after an awful beginning. She has been surrounded by cabinet members whose odd behaviors in personal spending of federal funds range from items like overpriced furniture to first-class flights.   Although the government is using federal funds of nearly $8 million to protect her, DeVos has remained almost entirely free of such accusations. She has also outlasted male cabinet members who President Donald Trump touted rather loudly about during his campaign and transition—former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price—as well as other high-standing Trump officials such as former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and former National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.And with current Ambassador the U.N., Nikki Haley, gracefully stepping aside, DeVos remains one of the few consistent fixtures in President’s Trump cabinet that is operating more like a Lazy Susan instead of a standard stronghold. With more pertinent issues dominating the news cycle, it may be pressing to point out what DeVos and her education department are even up to these days. After all, DeVos’ Department of Education does not even have a layman’s education agenda like former President George W. Bush had with No Child Left Behind or former President Barack Obama had with Race to the Top. Although she has recently toured Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana under the title “Rethinking Schools,” it is unclear if this is the name of her agenda or just her tour. The cloudiness of this missing education agenda is alarming as it signals a lack of vision and focus, but it also is strategic and leaves nothing to scrutinize. As a teacher during both the Bush and Obama administrations, both policies had an impact in my district, school and classroom. Under No Child Left Behind, more and more professional development for me as a teacher became data- and achievement test-driven. Under Race to the Top, I saw firsthand the explosion of charter schools in neighborhoods that didn’t have students to fill the schools which led, in part, to nearly 50 schools being closed in Chicago in 2013 under Mayor Rahm Emanuel—Obama’s former chief of staff. But under Trump’s administration via DeVos it is difficult to tell if I will feel the impact of DeVos’ major initiative, simply because there isn’t an initiative. Outside of a major vision, DeVos and the Department of Education, in fact, have been up to a great deal in working to create or dismantle controversial education policy. They have lifted protections for the rights of transgender students to use the bathroom of their choosing. According to The New York Times, she is constructing rules on campus sexual assault that would benefit the accused and protect universities. Time and time again she has stated that having guns in schools is up to school districts, the states and Congress, never outright stating a federal opposition to guns in schools just that federal funding would not be used for such a program. She attempted to roll back Obama-era guidelines that safeguard students from loan fraud—a lawsuit that she and the Department of Education recently lost. Looking at just those policies—transgender bathrooms, campus sexual assault, guns in schools, student loan fraud—one can see how these are tertiary topics that came second during the Bush and Obama administrations to a primary educational focus. Yes, those decisions, if successful, will negatively impact a great amount of students and raise moral and ethical questions about the Department of Education’s beliefs surrounding transgender students, victims of sexual assault, school shootings and student loans. But DeVos’ greatest strength, whether she knows it or not, is that not having a stated, focused agenda means she cannot have a great impact on the majority of public schools across our nation. For that, and for now, I am grateful.
Gina Caneva
Gina Caneva is a 14-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and Writing Center Director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. She has her M.Ed in Literacy, Language, and Culture from the University of Illinois at Chicago and writes extensively on education topics.

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