By Nora Lubin
Early last month, President Donald Trump nominated billionaire and Michigan-native Betsy DeVos for the position of Secretary of Education. Her subsequent hearing in front of the U.S. Senate took place Tuesday, Jan. 17, instigating an incendiary partisan contention.
Whilst Republicans applaud her for her efforts to implement new charter schools–or “alternative education options,” as she calls them–Democrats are less than satisfied with her qualifications, experience (or lack thereof), and prerequisites for confirmation hearing procedures. Democrats accuse her of aiming to privatize public education, an allegation salient to one of the most hotly debated issues in the senate and throughout the nation.
If DeVos does have conflicts of interest, including investments in corporations standing to profit off of her education policies, can she be considered a viable candidate?
Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, was one of many on his side of the aisle to jump to DeVos’s defense. Alexander argued against the claim that her advancement of charter schools was not in the “mainstream,” and instead placed her critics in that exact category.
Republican senators seemed to form a united front around that idea as quickly as their liberal counterparts had become united in incredulity and condemnation of DeVos and her nomination process. But Democratic senators Warren, Sanders, and Franken did not back down.
In fact, practically every Democrat present fought back against Senator Alexander’s action to limit the questions to only one round, a “precedent” proven to be entirely unprecedented, questioning the Republicans’ motives to protect their nominee from scrutiny. The seemingly hasty state of affairs only flared the tension in the hearing room.
HWC professor Kamran Swanson doubted the ethics behind the hearing proceedings, as well as those behind DeVos’s nomination, calling into question her financial investments, knowledge of the public education sphere, as well as her vacant background in education.
Swanson noted that the apparent 250 businesses operating out of her home, which allegedly have ties to the for-profit education institutions she has been backing for a number of years, a position from which she and her family have profited: private education and the enormous student loan debts.
Swanson considers her to have many potential conflicts of interest, as well as being an advocate for “eliminating the power, the influence, and the presence of public schools.”
Furthermore, Swanson cites her lack of understanding about the plight of socioeconomically underprivileged Americans as a major issue.
“If the education system is supposed to be part of the great leveling ground, we need somebody who’s aware of these issues and can take on these issues,” he said.
Ingrid Riedle, professor of political science as HWC, is in agreement with Swanson when it comes to our need for a strong public education system, and the need for policies promoting an investment in “staff, students, and resources,” as she stated in an email.
It is true that in March 2015, Betsy DeVos was on record claiming that our government “sucks” and that our public schools are a “dead end.” If our own Wchief of education does not believe in our government and its institutions, how are we–the people–supposed to?
Professors Swanson and Riedle have some advice for Harold Washington College students: get out there and make them listen. Riedle believes students should “make their voices heard clearly and often” through practical steps such as calling or writing to a representative or council member.
Swanson described an instance of a strengthened coalition between activists for the CPS Day of Action and the Black Lives Matter movement, making a much greater difference together than apart.
“We need to show up so that we understand that we are in this together...that democratic action requires involvement in every front, all the time, as much as you can,” he said.
Knowing that our voices and actions have a space and an impact, we can go about fighting for our public education, whether it be joining Student Government Association, organizing a movement or making a phone call.
In the words of Kellyanne Conway, President Trump’s former campaign advisor and current Counselor to the President, at a time when political impact seems so far out of reach, is it a fact that we cannot make a difference, or might that be considered an “alternative fact?”