President Donald Trump’s nominees to serve as assistants to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos may have more experience in education than her, but they didn’t seem any more prepared than she did at their Senate confirmation hearing this week.
Brig. Gen. Mitchell “Mick” Zais, Trump’s nominee for deputy secretary of education, and James Blew, the nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development, are both school voucher proponents. Yet both stumbled over basic questions about vouchers and neither knew how to respond to the facts regarding “dismal voucher results.”
Zais’ tenure as South Carolina’s elected state superintendent of education was marked by controversial, conservative stances. He supported legislation that would have opened the door to the teaching of creationism and introduction of a pro-gun curriculum. He opposed a bill that would have expanded sex education in high schools because he thought it would “weaken abstinence-based education.” He also advocated for private school vouchers and helped to pass a tax credit voucher program.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) expressed concern about Zais’ support for privatizing education. Zais answered Murray by lauding Florida’s voucher-like program – which just last month was the topic of an investigation by the Orlando Sentinel that found rampant problems, including a lack of oversight, use of questionable curriculum, unqualified staff, and students being educated in dangerous facilities.
Zais was questioned about whether he was familiar with recent research into the impact of vouchers on student achievement. He responded: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child, the result is improved outcomes.”
This answer is surprising considering that voucher programs show the exact opposite. When faced with the truth – that recent studies in Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio and Washington, D.C., found not only do vouchers not improve student achievement, but in many cases they harm it – he admitted he was unaware of these studies and that he had based his answer on anecdotes, not on facts.
Gen. Mick Zais, Pres. Trump's nominee for deputy education secretary under Betsy DeVos, is a voucher supporter.
James Blew’s answers about vouchers weren’t any better. Blew has worked for nonprofits that advocate for vouchers. He spent nearly a decade as the director of K-12 reform for the Walton Family Foundation – a pro-voucher organization that has donated millions to Alliance for School Choice, which DeVos chaired until her appointment as secretary of education.
During the hearing, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) voiced concerns that students with disabilities often must give up their civil rights protections when they go to a private school. He asked Blew whether that would continue to be the case if the federal government expands voucher programs, as Trump and DeVos have proposed.
“There is a lot of confusion about it,” Blew said. “Let me just make one critical point: All schools that accept direct federal dollars need to follow the law. They have to follow federal law.”
That’s actually a deceptive answer, one that DeVos also has used. Most voucher programs are premised on the falsehood that the federal funds do not go to the school, but to the student who then pays the school. That allows these schools to claim they aren’t receiving federal funds and make the case that the civil rights laws attached to those funds don’t apply to them.
As Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) explained: “Children with disabilities, particularly severe disabilities, are often ineligible for vouchers because there aren’t private schools that can provide them the quality education they deserve. You are draining resources from the schools that are left to deal with our most vulnerable and disadvantaged students.”
The pro-voucher stances of both of these nominees and their lack of knowledge about voucher programs are troubling.
Public dollars should fund public schools, which educate 90 percent of American children. AU will continue to fight against efforts by DeVos and the administration to divert desperately need funding from public schools. You can help by contacting your representatives in Congress and letting them know you support public schools.