Five members of the Greenville County school board visited the Washington offices of the state's U.S. senators this week to urge them to vote against Betsy DeVos, the school-choice activist nominated by President Donald Trump to become the next U.S. secretary of education.
They left the Capitol disappointed.
On Tuesday, DeVos narrowly won the approval of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, of which Sen. Tim Scott is a member, in a 12-11 vote along party lines. Sen. Lindsey Graham told the trustees he plans to support her when the vote goes to the full Senate.
The full Senate vote is expected to be close, with two Republican senators -- Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska -- announcing their opposition to DeVos on Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.
If she loses one more Republican — and all Democrats vote against her — the nomination dies, the AP said.
It's not only her advocacy of private school vouchers that rankles the Greenville trustees, who were in Washington for an annual advocacy workshop by the National School Boards Association, but also what they see as her lack of knowledge of public education, demonstrated during her nomination hearing.
“She was asked some pretty straightforward questions about which she had no clue,” trustee Chuck Saylors said. “To me, she made (Trump’s Energy secretary nominee) Rick Perry look like a nuclear physicist.”
Trustee Joy Grayson criticized DeVos for her lack of public school experience. DeVos, 58, would be the first person to head the federal Education Department in its more than 35-year history who hasn’t either attended public schools or sent her own children to them, according to Education Week.
“It gets down to qualifications,” Grayson said. “Education is a highly technical field with intricate federal laws governing the future of our youngest citizens. To put someone in charge who is not even familiar with these laws, much less read or studied them, is a huge disservice to our country.”
The Greenville trustees were part of a group of 40 school board members from across the state who visited the senators' offices to lobby against the nomination of the wealthy Michigan businesswoman.
Opponents of DeVos are concerned that the voucher system she advocates would deprive public schools of already-scarce public funding, particularly for disabled students and young people in impoverished school districts.
In a statement issued Monday in support of DeVos, Graham said, “I am proud to be a product of the South Carolina public school system. I recognize that many students continue to be disadvantaged. When a public school has failed our children for multiple generations, it’s time to rethink our strategy. It’s time for change and I believe Mrs. DeVos will be an agent of change in our system.
"We must return control to our parents, local school districts, and state to make the best decisions for our students. I look forward to supporting Mrs. DeVos’ nomination when the Senate considers it on the floor.”
Saylors, however, said vouchers could become an entitlement for high-achieving students and parents who already have the financial wherewithal to send their children to private schools. Private schools, he said, can reject students with learning and physical disabilities and do not have to abide by the same accountability standards as public schools.
“A private school does not have to accept every student,” Saylors said. “A private school does not have to have highly-qualified content-certified teachers. But a public school has to take every child who comes to the front door, whether they understand English, whether they are in a wheelchair, whether they have a learning disability — it does not matter.”
Grayson said she's seen widespread opposition to DeVos in Greenville County.
“The senators said they were hearing from as many supporters of Betsy DeVos as against her, but from what we saw on social media and through our constituents, that was not the case,” Grayson said. “I didn’t hear from anybody in support of her nomination.”
“She (DeVos) has gone on record saying that she’s made substantial political contributions and she expects to get something in return,” Grayson said, referring to a 1997 comment by DeVos in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.
Among her contributions are more than $10,000 in 2014-16 to Scott's campaigns, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Earlier this week Scott wrote a commentary for The Greenville News on his support for DeVos:
“I have come to the conclusion that we need to ensure students and their families have a variety of educational options at their disposal. My belief in school choice stems directly from that notion, and is a primary driver of my support for Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education,” Scott wrote.
“Being pro-school choice does not mean you want to tear down public schools, in fact the goal is the opposite,” Scott wrote. “We believe that by introducing competition, we can make every school perform better. That goes for public, charter, and private schools. The notion that Betsy DeVos or anyone else wants to destroy our public school systems is flat wrong. We have seen school choice programs around the country not only improve graduation rates for their own students, but force the public system to improve as well.”
Saylors is also concerned that federal money for special needs programs, such as IDEA, would be cut under DeVos to fund vouchers.
The federal government is supposed to provide 40 percent of funding for IDEA but currently only provides 16 percent, Saylors said.
“Over the past five years, Greenville County Schools has spent upwards of $130 million to cover the difference in the cost of IDEA versus what we receive from the federal government,” Saylors said. “If the federal government can find the money for private-school vouchers why can’t it fully fund IDEA?”
On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that in written responses to questions from senators, DeVos appears to have used several sentences and phrases from other sources without attribution — including from a top Obama administration civil rights official.
A White House education adviser, however, called that charge "character assassination," according to the Post.
Grayson said she supported at least one idea proposed by Trump and DeVos: to give school districts greater control of education.
“That’s the silver lining,” she said. “One good thing about the current administration is that they intend to roll back regulations. We have long been proponents of having the decisions made as close to the child as possible. We are looking forward to having control returned to the states.”