An open letter to Virginia's Senators
January 25, 2017
The Honorable Timothy Michael Kaine
The Honorable Mark Robert Warner
Senators for Virginia
Dear Senator Kaine and Senator Warner:
I am a resident of Richmond and President of Advanced Education Measurement, LLC. I write to urge you to oppose the nomination of Elisabeth “Betsy” DeVos to become the next United States Secretary of Education. She is not qualified to manage the US Department of Education (ED).
I do not offer this recommendation lightly. As a former assistant professor of Political Science from Wake Forest University, I understand and support the Senate’s traditional deference to the President’s Cabinet nominations. Presidents should have broad discretion to choose who will advise them in matters of national importance and manage the various departments of the Executive Branch in their stead. The Senate should only block a nomination when serious doubt exists as to the ability of the nominee to adequately discharge the basic responsibilities of the office. As a researcher with over 17 years of experience examining K-12 public education, I feel qualified to speak to this issue, and I am sorry to say I see little evidence that Ms. DeVos is prepared to fulfill these responsibilities.
Like millions of other Americans, I was shocked and dismayed at Ms. DeVos performance at her first confirmation hearing. Her lack of understanding of two of the largest ED programs suggests she is not fit to lead or reform them. First, Ms. DeVos showed a failure to understand how the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) operates. In 2015, the federal government spent $12.5 billion on special education, making it the second largest source of federal funding to K-12 education. If DeVos does not even know whether state participation in IDEA is mandatory, I have no confidence that she understands the more complicated parts of the law.
Second, Ms. DeVos stumbled badly on Senator Franken’s question about whether she preferred a proficiency- or growth-based approach to accountability. Since the earliest days of the Obama Administration, that distinction has been the single most dominant issue in school accountability policy debates. DeVos claims she is a strong proponent of accountability, so the country should expect that she offer strong answers to questions in an acknowledged area of strength. Instead, she seemed utterly lost.
A DeVos supporter might counter that her relevant experience with charter schools and the school choice movement is what matters most, particularly if one expects (as I do) that the Trump Administration will attempt to reorient ED to promote such programs. Although I strongly oppose such efforts, I can respect the Administration’s desire to have a leader who can move ED in President Trump's preferred direction.
However, even if one accepts that such a reorientation of ED towards school choice is desirable, one must also recognize the magnitude of that challenge. In 2015, roughly 5 percent of US children attended charter schools, and existing school choice and voucher programs serve a miniscule number of students. Any Secretary of Education who wishes to promote these programs will need to transition US public education away from the conventional model, a task of enormous complexity that, if done with a lack of expertise in how conventional schools work, threatens to leave millions of children with poorer schools than they currently attend.
Moreover, any massive expansion of charter schools and school choice programs will take decades to accomplish. For the foreseeable future, most students will be educated in conventional public schools, no matter how much President Trump or Ms. DeVos might wish otherwise. Regardless of her intentions now, as leader of ED Ms. DeVos will spend the vast majority of her time as leader of the conventional public school system, a task for which she seems woefully unprepared. She has spent no appreciable time working in or with the conventional public school system and, if her confirmation hearing is any indication, seems to understand it very little.
As a registered Democrat and proud volunteer for both the Obama and Clinton campaigns, I expect I would strongly disagree with any Trump nominee for Secretary of Education on nearly every major contemporary education issue. I recognize, however, that countless conservatives with strong support for President’s Trump’s policy goals understand contemporary public education at an extremely high level, and I would feel safe entrusting them with the education of the 50 million students in the US K-12 public education. I implore you to demand that President Trump select one of these capable leaders, not Ms. DeVos, as his first Secretary of Education.
Thank you for your consideration and your efforts on behalf of our state and country.
Dr. Bryan Shelly
Advanced Education Measurement, LLC