DeVos Confirmed; Pence’s Anti-LGBTQ Agenda Can Proceed

Betsy DeVos

After contentious confirmation hearings and a 50-50 vote (with all Democrats, all Independents and two Republicans voting against a solid Republican block), Vice President Mike Pence broke the Senate tie and confirmed Betsy DeVos as the next Education Secretary. This comes as little surprise as her history of school privatization efforts and support for religious schools falls in line with Pence’s historic efforts to disenfranchise LGBTQ people.

As the The New York Times explained today:

The 51-to-50 vote elevates Ms. DeVos — a wealthy philanthropist from Michigan who has devoted much of her life to expanding educational choice through charter schools and vouchers, but has limited experience with the public school system — to be steward of the nation’s schools.

For many in the education community, Ms. DeVos’s full-throated support for charter schools and vouchers — which allow students to use taxpayer dollars to pay tuition at private, religious and for-profit schools — is emblematic of a disconnection from the realities of the education system. Neither Ms. DeVos nor any of her children attended a public school. And she has never taken out a federal student loan, which is striking when considering she will head a department that is the country’s largest provider of student loans

Also striking is DeVos’ lack of basic knowledge about education demonstrated wholly during her confirmation hearing. Senator Al Franken led the charge against her at one point challenging not only her statements but her very understanding of education.

“In terms of throwing numbers around, you say that student debt has increased 1000 percent?” Franken asked.

“980 percent in 8 years. That’s almost 1,000,” DeVos replied.

“It’s increased 118 percent in the past 8 years. So, I’m just asking if you’re challenging my figures, I would ask that you get your figures straight on education policy,” Franken said. “That’s why we want more questions, because we want to know if this person [DeVos] that we are entrusting, may entrust to be the Secretary of Education, if she has the breadth and depth of knowledge that we would expect from someone who has that important job.”

In another exchange, Franken asked DeVos about her opinion on the ongoing debate between proficiency and growth.

“I think if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so that each student is measured according to the advancement that they’re making in each subject area,” DeVos said.

“Well, that’s growth. That’s not proficiency,” Franken responded. “So, in another words, the growth they are making isn’t growth. Proficiency is an arbitrary standard.”

“Proficiency is when they reach a third grade-level of reading, etc.” DeVos said.

Commenting on DeVos’ seeming lack of understanding between the two basic competing concepts, Franken said:

“This is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years. And I’ve advocated growth as the chairman, and every member of this committee knows, because with proficiency, teachers ignore the kids at the top who are not going to fall below proficiency and ignore the kids on the bottom, who no matter what they do will never get to proficiency. I’ve been an advocate of growth. So, it surprises me that you don’t know this issue.”

But this is all public knowledge at this point. What really needs to be examined – what we covered when her name was first announced – is Betsy DeVos’ anti-LGBTQ positions and how her (and Mike Pence’s) view of religion will inevitably place LGBTQ children at risk.

We originally reported on DeVos:

Perhaps the only thing more stark than DeVos’ lack of credentials to lead the public education charge is her view on church/state separation and the rights of LGBTQ people. The billionaire donor and her husband are famous in the conservative community not only for their anti-public education stance but for their financial and vocal support of organizations that work to curtail LGBTQ rights.

For starters, the DeVos family has donated substantial sums of money to organizations that support and promote conversion therapy – the dangerous exercise condemned by all major medical and psychological organizations for its fallacious attempts at “curing” LGBTQ people.

In addition to that, the DeVos family spent large amounts of money in Michigan over a decade ago in an effort to pass a state constitutional amendment banning LGBTQ marriage equality. According to reporting at Pride Source, the couple donated more than $200,000 to that campaign (which succeeded and banned LGBTQ people in Michigan from legally marrying for several years).

Four years after they succeeded in Michigan, the DeVos family moved on to fund anti-LGBTQ legislation in Florida in 2008. The family donated $100,000 to Florida4Marriage which (much like Michigan) successfully barred LGBTQ people from accessing the institution of marriage for many years.

The following year the DeVos family donated $500,000 to the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) – the largest national anti-LGBTQ advocacy organization fighting to bar (and now remove) LGBTQ couples’ right to legally marry.

The family has also made donations to Focus on the Family – a ‘Christian’ organization almost solely devoted to opposing LGBTQ rights. The founder of that organization once called the fight against LGBTQ rights a “second civil war.” Focus on the Family also actively supports conversion therapy.

Perhaps more egregiously, Betsy DeVos’ husband Richard DeVos lashed out at the LGBTQ community at the height of the AIDS crisis during the Reagan administration blaming them for getting sick.

Saying he’d been “hung in effigy by the gay community for a long time from when [he] was first on President Reagan’s first AIDS Commission,” DeVos said, “I listened to 300 witnesses tell us that it was everyone else’s fault but their own. Nothing to do with their conduct. It was just the government ‘fix this disease.’ At the end of that I put into the document that, it’s the conclusion document from that commission, that actions have consequences and you are responsible for yours.”

He called the LGBTQ community’s plea for help “special treatment.” He loathes the concept of LGBTQ marriage equality at one point stating, “Don’t ask for a concession to a marriage issue which is not vital to them in my opinion. They’ve made it a vital issue because they want to.”

Now that DeVos has the keys to every classroom in America, she can begin implementing the same Christian-themed religious privatization she tested in Michigan. More egregiously, she can immediately halt all protections for LGBTQ youth as interpreted until Title IX.

The Washington Blade touched on this possibility last year:

One thing DeVos could reverse as head of the Education Department is guidance from the Obama administration informing schools that discriminating against transgender students amounts to a a violation of Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972. That guidance, which Trump promised during his presidential campaign to rescind, required schools to allow transgender students to use the restroom consistent with their gender identity.

The Office of Civil Rights within DeVos’s Education Department could also more generally be thwarted from investigating and resolving complaints from LGBT students who say they faced discrimination in schools and the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Paired with Mike Pence – the father of one of the most notorious anti-LGBTQ ‘religious liberty’ laws in the nation (in Indiana) – DeVos’ penchant for supporting anti-LGBTQ causes could be catastrophic for LGBTQ youth even if public education survives.

And that’s a big ‘if’ since DeVos is a large supporter of education privatization.

As Mother Jones noted:

Asked whether Christian schools should continue to rely on giving—rather than pushing for taxpayer money through vouchers—Betsy DeVos replied, “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.”

Indeed, critics argue the DeVoses are attempting to expand the definition of “school choice”—typically understood as giving parents the ability to pick any traditional public school or charter school in a district—to allow taxpayer money to follow students to any private school via vouchers. Some critics of school choice argue that charters, which are publicly funded but governed by appointed boards and often run by private companies with varying degrees of state oversight, can skim high-performing students from traditional public schools, leaving them with more high-needs kids and less money. But the push for so-called “universal school choice” could take that a step further by eventually leading to a radical redirection of funds from traditional public schools to private schools, many of which are Christian: Trump’s signature education proposal calls for dedicating $20 billion in federal money to help families move away from what he has called our “failing government schools” and instead choose charter, private, or religious schools.

But the DeVoses’ foundation giving shows the couple’s clearest preference is for Christian private schools. In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy magazine, Betsy DeVos said that while charters are “a very valid choice,” they “take a while to start up and get operating. Meanwhile, there are very good non-public schools, hanging on by a shoestring, that can begin taking students today.” From 1999 to 2014, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation gave out $2.39 million to the Grand Rapids Christian High School Association, $652,000 to the Ada Christian School, and $458,000 to Holland Christian Schools. All told, their foundation contributed $8.6 million to private religious schools—a reflection of the DeVoses’ lifelong dedication to building “God’s kingdom” through education.

Focusing on the consequences of DeVos’ grand ambitions, Politico noted, “Thanks to the DeVoses, Michigan’s charter schools enjoy a virtually unregulated existence.”

They added:

But there’s another reason why Dick and Betsy DeVos want to change America’s schools. They see it as the literal battleground for making a more Christian, God-centered society.

In 2001, Betsy DeVos spoke at “The Gathering,” an annual meeting of some of America’s wealthiest Christians. There, she told her fellow believers about the animating force behind her education-reform campaigning, referencing the biblical battlefield where the Israelites fought the Philistines: “It goes back to what I mentioned, the concept of really being active in the Shephelah of our culture—to impact our culture in ways that are not the traditional funding-the-Christian-organization route, but that really may have greater Kingdom gain in the long run by changing the way we approach things—in this case, the system of education in the country.”

Lack of regulation, turning a blind eye to LGBTQ students as a federal agency, and religiously privatizing schools will all have the effect of creating a hostile – if not dangerous – environment for many students.

Though the vote is completed and DeVos is now the incoming Education Secretary, you can still act. Several of the 50 Republicans who voted to confirm DeVos will be up for re-election in November 2018. Feel free to politely reach out to them via Facebook and Twitter to remind them you’ll remember how much money they took from the DeVos family and how they voted:

Jeff Flake | Arizona | @JeffFlake | Senator Jeff Flake
Roger Wicker | Mississippi | @RogerWicker | Senator Roger Wicker
Deb Fischer | Nebraska | @SenatorFischer | Senator Deb Fischer
Dean Heller | Nevada | @SenDeanHeller | U.S. Senator Dean Heller
Bob Corker | Tennessee | @SenBobCorker | Sen. Bob Corker
Ted Cruz | Texas | @tedcruz | Senator Ted Cruz
Orrin Hatch | Utah | @SenOrrinHatch | Sen. Orrin Hatch
John Barrasso | Wyoming | @SenJohnBarrasso | Sen. John Barrasso

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Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.

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