Thursday Reading List: The Betsy Backlash and Other Questionable Nominees

Late in the day yesterday there was a flurry of activity in the Senate, related to the now-uncertain confirmation of education secretary designee Betsy DeVos (AKA #BetsyWithTheGrizzBear). Rebecca Klein of The Huffington Post lays out the challenges to her confirmation:

Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) announced Wednesday that they would not be voting for Betsy DeVos as education secretary, potentially imperiling the nominee’s confirmation. No Democratic senators are expected to vote for DeVos. If no other Republicans vote against DeVos, Vice President Mike Pence would be the tie-breaking vote. DeVos needs a simple majority to be confirmed. If Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is confirmed as attorney general before DeVos comes before a full Senate vote, it could further complicate her chances for confirmation. In that scenario, Sessions would not be eligible to vote.

In the deep echo chamber of the education policy rumor mill, the word is that Collins and Murkowski never would have come out as "no" votes unless they were certain that the rest of the Senate would hold. Momentum is a tricky thing to control, though, as Libby Nelson at Vox finds:

This level of opposition is unprecedented for education secretary nominees, who usually sail through the Senate confirmation process with little opposition. But DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor with little experience with traditional public schools, has sparked an overwhelming response from activists, who have flooded the Senate switchboard with calls and showed up to protests in at least three cities over the weekend.

If the confirmation is derailed, it will be because activists pounced when DeVos's dreadful confirmation hearing confirmed all of her opponents' worst suspicions. The public sector unions loathe DeVos, and their mobilizing infrastructure has kicked into high gear behind the scenes. That said, it's lazy to assume that the opposition is somehow driven by organized labor. Otherwise, you wouldn't be getting stories like this one, from The Washington Post's Emma Brown:

Eli Broad, a billionaire philanthropist from California and major backer of charter schools, is urging senators to oppose the nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, saying that she is unqualified for the job ... Broad’s opposition to DeVos is notable in part because it illuminates the extent of the opposition movement. Republicans have argued that Democrats are fighting against DeVos out of allegiance to teachers unions. Broad is a major Democratic booster. But he has used his wealth to promote charter schools in Los Angeles and cities nationwide, and could hardly be considered in the pocket of unions. In fact, unions have often attacked him, alleging that he is trying to undermine public education.

Wow! It seems like a huge cross-section of America's education policy elite - including a bunch of us who support progressive, technocratic reforms to the system - actually think #BetsyWithTheGrizzBear is wildly unqualified for this job! Moreover, we think that her ideological commitment to choice is unmoored from core liberal ideals like equity and accountability for the delivery of quality public services! Fascinating ...

In other news, Maureen Kelleher, writing at Education Post, is equally worried about Jeff Sessions and his positions on special education:

... there’s a deafening silence about an even more powerful nominee, Attorney General pick Jeff Sessions, and his thoughts on special education law. Sure, right after he was nominated advocates voiced concerns that he would not enforce key civil rights provisions in IDEA. Those provisions ensure students whose disabilities affect their behavior are not subject to inappropriate discipline. But we haven’t heard much about it since November, nor have many people been talking about what has happened to IDEA in recent years. Advocates’ initial concerns arose from a 2000 speech on the Senate floor where Sessions voiced constituent concerns that those provisions, in practice, meant special education students were not held accountable for dangerous behavior. Since the year 2000, the federal law has changed. Sessions voted for the changes when IDEA was reauthorized in 2004. One of those changes has made getting an education more difficult for some students with disabilities.

Sessions also has a terrifying record on voting rights, which I have covered on this blog. He prosecuted a series of cases aimed at making it harder for Black folks to vote, while evincing overtly prejudiced behavior in the process.

Finally, the president just nominated Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University, to be the head of a higher education task force. That group, which will be responsible for deregulating higher education, could end up directly benefitting Falwell's institution, as Kevin Carey points out in The New York Times:

Liberty, at first glance, isn’t in the same category as for-profit colleges. It enrolls about 14,000 students, most of whom are evangelical Christians, at its residential campus in Lynchburg, Va. But it also enrolls an additional 65,000 students online ... it’s almost unheard-of to have four times as many online students as residential students. Because internet courses are inexpensive to deliver at scale, the online division is a huge revenue driver for Liberty, which brought in $591 million in tuition in 2013, against $470 million in expenses. Liberty is essentially a medium-size nonprofit college that owns an enormous for-profit college ... Financially, the main difference between Liberty and the University of Phoenix is that Liberty doesn’t pay taxes. Liberty’s marketing and recruitment are driven by an 800-person telemarketing call center located in a former Sears department store near the main campus. Most of the tuition for Liberty’s online students comes from financial aid provided by the federal Department of Education, the same body that Mr. Falwell says is engaged in “overreaching regulation.”

The fundamental issue here is not the fuzzy distinction between "for profit" and "not for profit," which, as Carey points out, lacks illustrative power. The problem is that Liberty takes federal money, in the form of loans and grants for vulnerable students, while having no accountability for ensuing those students achieve an actual education. That's shady, and MANY colleges engage in such dubious processes.