Amidst a slew of Senate confirmation hearings and votes, advocates for the Orthodox community have devoted much of their lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill to support secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos, a long-time promoter of school choice initiatives.
Left-leaning education organizations, powerful teachers’ unions and others at odds with Mrs. DeVos’s support of programs such as private school vouchers and tax credits are in the midst of a vociferous campaign against her confirmation. Rabbi A.D. Motzen, national director of state relations for Agudath Israel of America, said efforts on her behalf are an attempt to make legislators aware of strong support amongst constituents.
“They [senators] are mostly hearing a one-sided view from the critics. We’re trying to balance that out,” he said. “Frankly, we’re bothered by a lot of things they [the opponents] are claiming about her and her intentions… The fact is that Mrs. DeVos has spent the last 30 years fighting to give parents choices in where they send their children. Every parent should be happy with an Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as she has championed their right and ability to educate their children in the setting and manner that best meets their unique needs.”
Mrs. DeVos has led the American Federation for Children, a Washington-based organization that focuses singly on advancing the cause of school choice options. Rabbi Motzen said that he has worked closely with the organization and Mrs. DeVos herself for over 10 years.
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions was scheduled to hold its hearing on the appointment Tuesday evening. At some point thereafter, the committee will vote on her recommendation and, eventually, on her confirmation before the full Senate.
In recent weeks, the Agudah and the Orthodox Union (OU) have encouraged constituents to contact their representatives and voice their support for Mrs. DeVos’s nomination. Both organizations sent letters directly to committee members and have been in contact with key senators through a number of channels.
The Agudah’s letter stressed the importance of maintaining the “independence” of religious schools and Mrs. DeVos’s support in this area. “Such institutions must be permitted to maintain policies consistent with their religious faith. While Mrs. DeVos and the organization she has led over the years has pushed for strong accountability measures on private school choice programs, even stronger than we believed necessary, we have been pleased with her sensitivity towards the autonomy of religious schools,” reads the letter in part.
OU Advocacy Center Executive Director Nathan Diament penned an op-ed piece in the Washington Post saying that Mrs. DeVos’s appointment is a clear sign of President-elect Donald Trump’s commitment to his campaign promises regarding the national expansion of school choice and far-reaching education reform. Despite the fact that tax credits, vouchers and the like are largely an issue in the hands of state governments, the article outlines several areas in which the federal Department of Education could be instrumental in this movement. Mr. Diament told Hamodia that one key area is in the enforcement of existing programs.
“There are many provisions that make funds available for non-public school students, but local districts often do not implement the spirit of the law to help these students. She [DeVos] could be much more aggressive in requiring local agencies to follow the requirements of the law which would be very significant,” he said. “Whatever gives parents more resources to make decisions for how their children are educated is good for American education in general. Parents have the most passionate interest in their children’s success and no one will hold schools accountable like parents. Putting more power in their hands should be the best thing for all schools.”