Betsy Devos

When Betsy DeVos was nominated as U.S. education secretary last fall, teachers unions condemned the pick and denounced her lavish spending to promote school vouchers, charter schools and for-profit schools. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, claimed that by nominating DeVos, “Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America.”

When the nominee, a Michigan billionaire and Republican donor who married into the Amway family fortune, testified before a U.S. Senate committee in January, she either would not or could not weigh in on basic policy matters, such as how best to assess student performance. Perhaps her most memorable line was an off-script comment defending guns in schools as a way to protect against “potential grizzlies” in places like Wyoming. Senators were deluged with thousands of calls, letters and emails opposing the school choice advocate.

In February, shortly before her confirmation vote, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer castigated the nominee, who has virtually no experience with public schools, as the “least qualified in a historically unqualified Cabinet.” Two Republican senators broke ranks and voted against DeVos, resulting in a 50-50 tie. It took a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence to eke out the narrowest of majorities.

“She seemed not to be aware of the civil rights function that the department plays to make sure every child does get a proper education.” – Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan

Now, as she embarks on the latest and most high-profile chapter in her crusade to allow students to opt out of traditional public schools, elected officials, educators and experts in New York are wondering what impact she’ll have here. Will she follow through on President Donald Trump’s pledge to create a $20 billion fund for school vouchers? Will congressional Republicans move on priorities like reforms to health care and entitlement spending and still have the time, or the political will, to take on education initiatives that are controversial even among some conservatives? Or as angry Democrats might put it, is DeVos merely unqualified – or will she eviscerate the public education system?

Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, the chairwoman of the Assembly Committee on Education, said she is not concerned about DeVos’ well-documented background in private schools. Instead, it is the education secretary’s education philosophies that worry her.

“She continues to be quite critical of our public schools without recognizing that they educate every child,” Nolan said. “I know during her testimony, she seemed not to be aware of the civil rights function that the department plays to make sure every child does get a proper education – things like that were very troubling.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, pointed to DeVos’ track record in Michigan, where she spearheaded an expensive lobbying campaign to expand charter schools. There have been mixed results at such schools, especially in Detroit, where for-profit operators flourished with little state oversight and lackluster student results. Unions and some education advocates argue that these schools, as well as vouchers to cover the cost of students switching to private schools, take away critical resources from traditional public schools. In Michigan, Mulgrew argued, DeVos’ efforts damaged the state’s education system, which is why he’s worried about the impact she could have here.

“I don’t know she fully understands how public schools work.” – state Sen. Carl Marcellino

“I’ve had numerous adults here from the state of Michigan – including the president of the state school board – who said what she did was horrible,” Mulgrew said. “He actually worked with her for the first couple years. What was really happening was that school systems were being destroyed and when they tried to push back, she just used her money to stop them from getting anything they wanted in the state Legislature.”

But Nolan said she does not believe that state Senate Republicans, who are in the majority, will turn their back on the public school system in favor of charters. “New York state puts billions of dollars into education, so that gives us some skin in the game, as young people would say,” Nolan said. “Education in New York has been a bipartisan issue for a very long time.”

Indeed, some Republicans in Albany raised their eyebrows at the appointment. “I’ve never met her, but from what I’ve read, she comes from a background in private schools and charter schools,” said state Senate Education Committee Chairman Carl Marcellino. “What I don’t know is if she truly understands – I’ve had this conversation with some union people in my district – I don’t know she fully understands how public schools work.”

Theoretically, DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education could withhold federal education funding if New York, and other states, decline to adopt their policies.

“We need some (federal money),” Marcellino said. “I’ve advised them most of the time not to take the money because with federal money comes federal guidelines. It puts them in charge and they can tell you how to spend it and what to spend it on.”

The federal government can also dangle money in front of the state to entice them to adopt their policies. Nolan pointed to the state’s choice to accept $700 million in federal Race to the Top funding, which included accountability measures that proved to be very unpopular. The state ultimately walked back from those measures.

“The federal government might have some ability to demand we do some things with vouchers with private schools or charters,” she said. “That will be something that will have to get fought over as it goes forward, but I’m concerned that they may send down unfunded mandates that don’t have to do with New York’s education philosophy and we’ll have to see what happens.”

What also could happen is that New York will not experience much of a change under DeVos. For one thing, education policy is largely driven by the states. The bulk of education funding comes from the state and local governments, with only a fraction from the federal government.

“I think it’s important to understand ... the very limited role, in fact, the United States Department of Education has. … Charter schools are creatures of state law and will continue to chart our own course in New York.” – James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center

Indeed, one education advocacy group is making the claim that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is moving to eliminate the Foundation Aid formula and an accompanying $4.3 billion state obligation to public schools in the state – an amount that exceeds what the state receives in federal education aid by about $1.4 billion. The Cuomo administration says it is not ending Foundation Aid.

New York, a state with influential teachers unions, does have a growing charter school sector, but only nonprofits can apply – whereas in Michigan, a majority of charters are for-profit. Nor has New York has followed the lead of a dozen or so states that provide vouchers for students to attend private schools.

“I think it’s important to understand ... the very limited role, in fact, the United States Department of Education has,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center. “In K-12 generally and with charter schools in particular, other than providing this critical startup funding, they don’t really play a major role. Charter schools are creatures of state law and we’ll continue to chart our own course in New York, as we did under the other three presidents. I don’t see any difference there.”

Merriman argued that DeVos’ position is not actually too much of a shift from the last few education secretaries, at least when it comes to charter schools, which have won some bipartisan support within New York as well. While total education spending in last year’s state budget increased by $1.3 billion, charter schools also got a boost with a $54 million increase to the amount they receive per student by $430. The state also required New York City to help some charter schools pay rent.

But the unions and their allies say that DeVos’ confirmation victory is only the first battle in a long war. Mulgrew said the one good thing stemming from the DeVos confirmation is that he is already seeing a grass-roots movement to oppose her.

“The UFT has never – and will never – back down from a fight when our members and our school communities are attacked,” Mulgrew said while testifying in Albany last month. “We’ve been marching and rallying around the city these past few months, at immigration rallies, the anti-DeVos rally at the Tweed Courthouse, the airport takeover and the amazingly successful Women’s March. In the months ahead, you can expect more of the same. We stand together with parents and students, to protect our country and our rights.”

With reporting by Jon Lentz.