Q&A with School Of Education Faculty

What does the appointment of Betsy DeVos mean for future federal education policy and initiatives?

Professor and NYC Department Chair Peter McDermott, PhD: Effective leaders should inspire creativity and innovation. Ms. DeVos neither inspires nor appreciates public education. Her history and her performance during the Senate hearings suggest she is unaware of the role of public education in the history of the United States. She never acknowledged the rich history of public schools at promoting democratic values and beliefs, advancing the economy, or making the country a model for the free world. In fact, Ms. DeVos’ prior history has been to undermine public education and divert its resources to charters and private schools.

Professor Tom Higgins, EdD: Given her history in Michigan and her comments in the confirmation hearing, it appears that DeVos will limit the federal government's role in education.  This raises significant questions about 1) the many revenue sources for public schools, e.g., Title I funding, and a secondary effect on the funding for the New York State Education Department that derives much of its operational resources from federal dollars, and 2) the abdication of a strong policy role in guaranteeing a free and appropriate education to all students.


Clinical Assistant Professor Jennifer Pankowski, EdD: I think DeVos' nomination speaks volumes about the divide between public and private education. In New York City particularly, DeVos' lack of public school experience is a concern. With the rise of charter schools, and their ability to reject applicants with disabilities, federal funding will go to for-profit institutions that violate the Free Appropriate Public Education program (FAPE) - an educational right of children with disabilities in the United States that is guaranteed by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973[1] and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

How does DeVos’ appointment compare to some of President Trump's other cabinet appointments?

PM: Several decades ago a popular book documented the end of the Penn Central Railroad. Two factors, ineffective leadership and the diversion of railroad resources to competing modes of transportation, contributed to the “Wreck of the Penn Central Railroad” (Daughen & Binzen, 1971). The U.S. Department of Education is facing a similar scenario with the impending nomination of Betsy DeVos.

Ms. DeVos has never exhibited leadership for improving our public school systems, and instead she has advocated for the diversion of public money to private and charter schools. Her appoinment represents a radical departure from federal support of public education to independent and private education.

Other Trump appointees are similarly extreme in their views.  Many of them also depart from well-established views and practices regarding the 21st Century and the power and importance of government for improving people’s lives. This is evidenced in their values for working locally rather than globally, supporting business at the expense of the environment, promising tariffs rather than free trade, and valuing local and populist views rather than multicultural ways of thinking and behaving. Ms. DeVos nomination fits closely with many of the other appointments who fail to recognize that changing technologies and the worldwide population explosion have changed how we must live.

TH: Controversy seems to emerge in three categories: ideology, potential conflict of interest, and qualifications. Clearly ideology, as indicated in #1 above, is a significant concern for educators. DeVos' focus on privatization through vouchers begs the question of accountability for the expenditure of public dollars. Just as significant is her lack of qualification for the position. She has no training in education, she has no background in education, and as demonstrated in her hearing, she has limited knowledge of key issues in the education debate such as proficiency vs. growth as a measure of success.

JP: Given my own background and fears in this area - compromising the future of our country by compromising our youngest and most vulnerable stake holders - a DeVos appointment will put our students' education at risk.


Devos has said that she believes that the responsibility for the education of students with disabilities should be determined at the state level, leaving many concerned that she will not enforce the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)- a federal law ensuring services to children with disabilities. Your thoughts?

PM: Effective leaders should possess rich appreciation and knowledge of the organizations they lead. Ms. DeVos’s history with Michigan’s education system and her testimony during the Senate’s confirmation hearings reveal that she neither appreciates nor knows public education. When asked about the importance of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act  (IDEA), she deferred to a “states’ rights” ideology that ignores the enormous contributions of the federal government at ensuring that all children receive a free and appropriate education. Ms. DeVos did not clearly answer questions about what she would do to support the education of children with disabilities. In effect, she seemed unaware that IDEA even existed, nor did she acknowledge the importance of the legislation in providing quality education to children with disabilities. Her performance during the Senate hearings revealed a lack of appreciation and knowledge of the importance of the Department of Education at supporting the education of all children.

TH: We have a long history of states not providing an appropriate education for students with disabilities leading to the 1975 authorization of IDEA. Saying that the needs of a child with disabilities can be addressed differently in different states is like saying that a person's civil rights can be addressed differently in different states.  It makes no sense.

JP: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) should be enforced at all levels - building, district, state, and federal. Currently, New York City and Chicago are the most segregated areas of our country. Sadly, they are also the largest, thus without federal oversight we cannot ensure the LRE (least restrictive environment) is enforced nor rights protected under IDEA. I have visited schools, particularly charters where no services are received, without this federal enforcement and I'm afraid under DeVos this will continue. The Common Core is the first attempt at accountability in special education -  and we risk losing it if IDEA is not enforced at the federal level.


For those in higher education or early childhood education, what impact will this secretary of education have on institutions (both public and private)?

PM: Because Ms. DeVos is a supporter of private and charter schools, it is difficult to see how her appointment will strengthen public education. It is far more likely that private and charter schools will prosper, but public education will be weakened. In addition, given that she is a support of “states’ rights,” the federal government will likely have a weakened role at advocating for the education of all children. This is likely to apply to early childhood, elementary and secondary schools, as well as higher education. I further anticipate that funding for federal programs serving children with disabilities, learners with languages other than English, early childhood and preschool education, and children needing remedial services will be weakened. Funding for such education programs will be diverted directly to the states and the federal government’s role will be lessened. Of course, the very reason for federal intervention in the first place was that some states neither wanted nor supported free public education for all children.

TH: Effective public schools are essential to a democracy. The most important issue to consider is how do we make public schools more effective through local, state, and federal initiatives. It appears that with DeVos, through increased charter schools and vouchers and a limited federal role, there is a lack of concern about equity and a diminished capacity for public schools.

JP:  The obvious risk at the early childhood level is universal pre-K. If educations are not certified it will also effect higher education institutions and the setting of high standards. Also looking at public versus private, currently teachers in private schools may or may not be state certified. This allows for low or unqualified educators in either charters or tuition-based private schools. Without a secretary of education who is knowledgeable, the use of uncertified teachers will continue and jeopardize educational standards for all students.