The "alarming record" of billionaire heiress Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Education, has national civil rights groups warning that the ideologically-driven conservative will not be an advocate for all children.
DeVos, who appears before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) at 5pm EST on Tuesday for her confirmation hearing, is not an educator and has never led a state agency or school, nor has she ever been a public school parent or public school student, Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, pointed out on a conference call on Tuesday.
More troubling are her efforts to advance private charter schools, voucher programs, and donations to anti-LGBTQ groups, which, Henderson said, "demonstrate that she seeks to undermine bedrock American principles of equal opportunity, nondiscrimination, and public education itself," making her "wholly unqualified" for the position of secretary of Education.
Leaders from an array of civil rights groups spoke to reporters on Tuesday, pointing out that one of the Department of Education's primary responsibilities is ensuring that all children—whether minority, female, immigrant, LGTBQ, or with special needs—have equal access to a public education through the enforcement of civil rights laws.
"Ms. DeVos' commitment to private charter schools, voucher programs and her support of groups that oppose affirmative action, raise serious and important questions about her commitment to public education."
—Sherrilyn Ifill, NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund
Under the Obama administration, the department resolved 66,000 civil rights complaints. At the same time, its enforcement of landmark civil rights legislation "has prompted meaningful change," and in some cases "prompted schools to rethink unfair discrimination policies," noted Fatima Goss Graves, senior vice president for program at the National Women's Law Center.
"Any secretary of Education must possess a commitment to public education. This includes a demonstrated commitment to advancing equity in education, promoting racial and socioeconomic school diversity, and reducing harsh school disciplinary practices that push children out of school," said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The secretary, Ifill continued, must ensure that "local school districts provide quality public education on an equal basis to all students."
"Ms. DeVos' record shows no demonstrated commitment to, or experience working to advance these principles," she added. "In fact, Ms. DeVos' commitment to private charter schools, voucher programs and her support of groups that oppose affirmative action, raise serious and important questions about her commitment to public education."
As head of the pro-privatization American Federation for Children, the Amway heiress, whose family has donated millions of dollars to conservative causes, has spent years aggressively lobbying state and federal lawmakers on behalf of private charter schools and voucher programs.
Such so-called "school choice" efforts, Ifill explained, usually result in "impoverishing some districts by removing the parents [and students] that have the best means." Further, they promote private schools that often have very little oversight or accountability, where laws protecting minorities and students with disabilities are not enforced, and, as Goss Graves observed, where marginalized students are even more vulnerable.
"The Secretary of Education must have the interests of all students in mind, and everything we have seen from Betsy DeVos suggests that she will not."
—Mara Keisling, National Center for Transgender Equality
DeVos' staunch Christian conservatism and record of donating to anti-LGBTQ groups such as Focus on the Family has sparked fears among equality advocates.
Legal advocacy organization Lamda Legal issued a statement Tuesday expressing concern over DeVos' views, particularly her support for groups that oppose marriage equality and preach the practice of so-called "conversion therapy."
"Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students contact Lambda Legal every day to seek help being safe at school," the group said. "We need a Secretary of Education who will make schools safe for all students, and who won't tolerate bullying—by peers, parents, or school administrators."
Similarly, Mara Keisling, executive director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, warned that DeVos' confirmation "would put hundreds of thousands of transgender students around the nation in great danger."
"More than three-quarters of people who are openly transgender of perceived to be in a K-12 setting receive some kind of mistreatment from administration, students or both," Keisling said. Under Obama, the departments of Education and Justice "have taken huge steps to protect students from this kind of discrimination... this would be undone by DeVos' ideology and lack of experience."
Summing up the concern felt across the groups, Keisling concluded the press call saying, "The Secretary of Education must have the interests of all students in mind, and everything we have seen from Betsy DeVos suggests that she will not."
DeVos' hearing will be streaming live on the HELP committee website beginning at 5pm EST.