On Feb. 7, Betsy DeVos was sworn in as the 11th U.S. Secretary of Education amidst widespread controversy and opposition. She was justly criticized for her glaring lack of experience and apparent ignorance on simple issues. As her confirmation hearing conjured up images of grizzly bears stalking Wyoming school children, she became a nationwide punchline, eliciting a fearful, nervous giggle.
Despite widespread acknowledgment of her insufficiencies, she was confirmed. Many have attributed this confirmation to Republican spinelessness, citing lawmakers’ unwillingness to defy President Donald Trump at all costs. This view, however tempting, ignores the root of the problem; DeVos, while undeniably unqualified, is not ideologically unique amongst Republican lawmakers. In fact, many of her promises appeal directly to sitting members of the Texas Legislature.
Most of DeVos’ experience in education has been in promoting school choice, a voucher system in which taxpayer dollars can be reallotted for individuals who want to attend private or parochial schools. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has been a staunch advocate for school choice, and although he has been unsuccessful in implementing these policies so far, he has stated publicly that this remains a priority for the future.
Even more popular are DeVos’ views on federal government intervention within schools. She has repeatedly fought against regulations for charter schools and promised in her confirmation hearings to limit the federal control over schools. The recently appointed head of the Texas House Public Education Committee, Dan Huberty, shares these long-term goals. He also shares her flair for the bizarre, having once drunkenly attacked a reporter minutes after leaving the House.
Huberty states his priority in education is “(eliminating) unfunded, unnecessary mandates” impressed upon the states by the federal government, and he has supported measures to curb the influence of government regulations in the classroom. His disdain for the federal government motivated him to sponsor a bill requesting a convention to amend the Constitution in order “to limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government.” He has voted in support of defunding the arts and against funding so-called “High Quality Pre-K’s.”
The public education system in Texas is in need of reform. Conservative lawmakers have defunded schools to the extent that Texas — one of the most economically fortuitous states in the nation — spends less money per student than most. The Texas legislature’s goal per pupil spending is currently set at $5,140, strikingly lower than the national average of $10,700.
Conservative economic policies like the ones being employed in Texas have had devastating consequences for public education in other parts of the country. In Oklahoma, popular tax cuts have led to more than a third of school districts combating insufficient funds by cutting down to four-day school weeks. This shift has prompted childcare and academic uncertainty and has left almost two-thirds of Oklahoma students who qualify for free or reduced lunch at risk of hunger.
Conservative policies like limiting accountability and cutting school funding ignore the human impact that education has on students, transforming children into numbers that can be reduced for a tax cut or whose prospects can be limited to make an ideological statement.
It may seem easy to mock DeVos’ suggestion that schools need guns to protect themselves from bears, but you do so in one of only eight states that deny public universities the right to prohibit firearms. DeVos is not a joke anymore. She’s in charge, and she’s not alone in pursuing policies that are not in the best interest of students. Pay attention to what happens now, not just in Washington but three blocks away at the Texas Capitol. Don’t let your attention be monopolized by whichever of Trump’s decisions is shouting loudest. Remember that change is happening in Texas and all over the nation and that you have the right to demand satisfaction from your representatives.
Anderson is a Plan II and history freshman from Houston.