February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

DeVos Confirmed as Education Secretary; Librarians React

©C-SPAN screengrab

©C-SPAN screengrab

Betsy DeVos, the embattled school-choice proponent whose family has donated millions of dollars to Republican candidates, was confirmed as U.S. Education Secretary yesterday by exactly one vote, that from Vice President Pence. That tie-breaking vote has never before been needed for the confirmation of a cabinet official.

Reaction from the library world was swift. “We expect any leader of the Department of Education to support libraries and the unique and critical role librarians play in student success at all levels of education,” American Library Association president Julie Todaro told SLJ. “We will continue to advocate for libraries and librarians as integral to the success of every student in our schools, community colleges, colleges and universities across the country.”

DeVos’s nomination by President Trump triggered unprecedented opposition, even in a new landscape of unprecedented opposition. It was voiced through more than a million phone calls to the Senate offices in Washington, thousands upon thousands of letters and postcards, as well as a grassroots social media campaign and protests, even in DeVos’s hometown of Holland, MI. The widespread resistance continued unabated up until the last minute, even on Super Bowl Sunday.

“My initial reaction was ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. How can 1.5 million calls a day from constituents not count more than just blindly voting along party lines?’ I literally had tears in my eyes from how discouraging this feels,” says Deah Hester, a librarian in an alternative high school in Arlington, VA.

DeVos’s many opponents point to her apparent lack of knowledge of the workings of the public school system. She is well known for chairing the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy group. But she has never worked in a public school, attended one, nor had a child who went to one. That combination of circumstances makes her unique among all previous education secretaries. “I felt ill because I knew our elected officials had abandoned us and abandoned common sense,” says Gina Seymour, a high school librarian in Islip, NY. “If I have to be highly qualified, then the person in charge of policy should need to be as well.”

During her confirmation hearings, she was widely seen as being ill informed, in particular about the fundamentals of college loans and the specifics of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Some also worry about her experience with early education. “Long term, is the achievement gap going to grow at an even faster rate? Does she even know what early education means?” wondered Lisa Kropp, a public librarian in Lindenhurst, NY, and an early learning specialist.

The outgoing secretary of education, John B. King Jr, now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, was among those voicing concern about DeVos’s appointment.

“Throughout the confirmation process, The Education Trust expressed concerns about Betsy DeVos’s commitment to fully embracing public education and to using the full range of tools at the secretary’s disposal to protect and advance opportunity and achievement for low-income students, students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities….I sincerely hope that Ms. DeVos will work hard to prove these concerns wrong and will lead the department in a manner that protects fundamental civil rights and promotes opportunity and achievement for all students,” King said in a statement. Indeed, whether DeVos can emerge from this tumultuous start to bring excellence and equity to America’s students remains to be seen.

Katie, a librarian in the Midwest who asked to be identified only by her first name, put it more bluntly: “I started crying when I heard. This is a sad and dangerous day for the future of our nation’s youth.” Yet, some took this latest disappointment as another opportunity to get to work doing what librarians do best. “I searched for information right away,” shared Seymour. “Like who voted for her, and when they are up for re-election. After fact-gathering, I disseminated the information through social media. Gotta love librarians—fact-find and share.”

Beth Yoke, executive director of the Young Adult Library Services Association, is looking ahead as well. “Public education for all is a cornerstone of a successful democracy. As librarians and educators, we have a responsibility to protect this fundamental right for all youth in the U.S., and now is a time to regroup and move forward,” says Yoke. “Let’s not forget that the U.S. Department of Education has a limited role because education is so decentralized in the U.S. Education standards and curricula are determined at the state level, and key funding decisions are made locally. As advocates of youth, we can unite and direct our energies there to ensure all young people have equal access to a quality public education.”


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Christina Vercelletto About Christina Vercelletto

Christina Vercelletto is School Library Journal’s former news editor. An award-winning writer and editor, Vercelletto has held staff positions at Babytalk, Parenting, Scholastic Parent & Child, and NYMetroParents.com.



  1. No matter what Trump’s administration does – it has resulted in lots of whining. Give her a chance. Reasonable and intelligent people can have differing opinions, and I for one believe that we must accept that fact and allow Mrs. DeVos to do her work.

    • RK, this is not about whining or “differing opinions.” This is a matter of a complete lack of qualification for such an important role.

      • Jo Johnson says:

        The :qualified” people have not fixed it in years/decades–maybe a fresh set of eyes can change the course to positive change

        • Let’s give her a chance. I’m tired of the whininess. Let’s get to work and see how we can make this succeed. We’re experts at that.

        • Lynn Hardiman says:

          She is so unqualified that her interview would not get her any job that she hadn’t paid millions for. Voicing concern for a choice should not be construed as whining. If one thinks that vouchers and charter schools are the answer to our educational woes, then one might perceive that Mrs. DeVoss
          is a good choice. If one cares that our kids can add and subtract as well as read, I can’t imagine a worse choice. I for one will keep my school a grizzly free zone.

        • Love Jo’s argument! So if a “qualified” surgeon wasn’t able to remove a tumor from your brain, would you be willing to let Ms. DeVos give it a go?

    • Good News! Trump just nominated the office janitor for surgeon general. Amidst concerns from the left about qualifications, conservatives repeat the mantra, “Just give him a chance!”

  2. Short memories at play. The very first education secretary was even more unqualified than DeVos. She was a federal judge nominated by Jimmy Carter, who created the agency.

    Let’s face it. It’s not like the public education system is the model forthe world, even though our spending has increased by a third over 30 years. Most urban parents I know are doing everything they can to get their kids into charter schools, where there is at least a modicum of discipline. The rest, unless their kids test into one of the skimming high elementary magnets, are sending their kids to skimming left-liberal private schools at $40,000 and $50,000 a year. (Yes, they give financial aid. But there’s a slew of kids who still can’t attend). These schools tend to attract outspoken social justice warrior librarians, but probably do not have a 100% population of the same children who have to attend District 7 schools in the south Bronx.

    She likes charter schools and vouchers? The poorer the parents, the more they want them them, because they know it can’t be any worse.

  3. I will only say this, as I am afraid that this may be misconstrued as attacking the author, that I am disappointed by the lack of objectivity within the article in finding a diverse group of librarians that are willing to speak about both, Ms. DeVos’s qualifications or lack thereof. I did not cheer and I did not cry when she was confirmed. However, I have not gotten the impression that Ms. DeVos is a horrible person whom has a deep-seated hatred or desire to see the failings of any child. As both a parent and an advocate for school choice of any kind (cyber, public, charter, home, private, etc.), I am open to the transformative properties of education. An educator’s job is to provide the tools to tap into a student’s thirst for learning. It is sad for me to see so many students who do not have that spark, that excitement of discovery. But no Education Secretary from Any administration can create that desire – we do! It’s why we wake up each morning, go to our jobs, stay up late working on new ways to reach and engage our kiddos. At least that is why I do what I do, regardless of who’s on-deck this term in Washington. Her confirmation or anyone else’s will not hinder or change who I am as an educator because we are on the front-lines everyday.

    • Bretta Wyatt says:

      Your comment is well stated and should remind everyone that until we step into that position ourselves, we cannot be the one’s who throw stones. As Librarians and leaders in education, we should be the ones who give others a fair chance. If we start accusing everyone who is different from us as not intelligent enough, or qualified enough, then we become librarians and leaders who choose sides. Let us all step back and think about how we treat differences. Do we really want to put up a front that states we choose people who are like us and not those who are different? Does it matter that DeVoss went to a private school? If people were to judge me based on my past, I wouldn’t have a chance in this world. But, despite the odds, I have overcome many obstacles in my path of life to achieve things that many would not have thought possible. I hope one day the bitter, angry tones that are sweeping our nation slow down and become more accepting of others. Let us be role models for our nation and not jump on the bandwagon of hate and mistrust. Positive reactions can change the world but the negativity and hate will continue to create a world of mistrust. Let’s choose our words and our world wisely. LMS=Role Model

    • Regarding school choice, in many areas parents have traditionally had a choice among private, private/parochial, and public schools. I attended a parochial school in the 50s. The difference today is that taxpayers are expected to provide vouchers to private school students in effect a double tax. My parents paid taxes and also paid tuition for five children. My father was a blue collar worker but they sacrificed. That was the choice they made. They did not expect their friends and neighbors to contribute to two educational systems. My parents would be aghast at such a concept and possibly embarrassed at the suggestion. Certainly poor taste.

    • My Two Cents says:

      I have to agree with DJ. By putting the phrase “whose family has donated millions of dollars to Republican candidates” in the first sentence, the author of this article pretty well betrayed her bias right out of the gate. If the point of the article was to objectively cover librarians’ reactions to DeVos’s confirmation, then that fact should have either been voiced by a librarian (in a quote) or been couched in language that made it clear this is an objection that people who don’t support DeVos’s confirmation have. I don’t have a horse in this particular race, and agree with DJ that the issues with education in this country are far more endemic than who the SOE is. But it bothers me when journalism pretends to be objective and isn’t.

  4. Saying we should allow Betsy DeVos do her job because its a pair of fresh eyes is like taking your problematic car to the hair salon to be fixed because they might be able to see somthing with a fresh set of eyes.

  5. Why is it that some people like to label those who disagree with their opinions as “whiners?” Some of us are aware of what Betsy DeVos has helped to do to public schools in the state of Michigan. She has an anti-public school agenda. She believes that money slated for public education should be used for private school vouchers. She is a proponent of charter schools, which in Michigan, have not been successful for lack of enough regulation

    You might consider reading the following article:
    A sobering look at what Betsy DeVos did to education in Michigan — and what she might do as secretary of education

  6. Angela Camack says:

    I have concerns about De Vos myself, but I wonder about SLJ’s objectivity when the lead-off to a critical article about her is that “her family has donated millions to Republican candidates.” For all the self-serving noise librarians make about honoring a variety of opinions, the honor seems to stop when opinions differ from the liberal beliefs most librarians hold. Republicans are certainly part of the communities libraries serve, and deserve the same treatment as Democrats, Independents and whatever. Horrors, some librarians are Republicans!!!!! Besides, is De Vos to be held to task for her families political contributions?

  7. Well, guess what. Your whining won’t make her go away: It just makes you look bad. Get over your disappointment–or not–and work with what we have.