Politics & Policy

The Unconscionable Assault on Betsy DeVos

Betsy DeVos speaks at a Thank You USA event in Grand Rapids, Mich., December 9, 2016. (Reuters photo: Mike Segar)
Double standards and Trump’s nominee for education secretary

The commentariat has railed against Trumpian incivility, nastiness, and immoderation. It’s striking, though, in how fickle a manner these standards are applied. For instance, last month the president-elect nominated Michigan philanthropist and school reformer Betsy DeVos to serve as U.S. secretary of education; the response has been remarkable, and not in a good way. (Full disclosure: DeVos is on the board of the American Enterprise Institute, where I’m employed as a scholar.)

DeVos has served as board chair for the Alliance for School Choice, as head of All Children Matter (a political-action committee for school-choice advocates), and as a board member of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. She has previously served as Republican National committeewoman for Michigan and as chair of the state’s GOP. All in all, she’s a pretty conventional choice. Her nomination was termed a “pretty mainstream pick” by education pundit Andy Rotherham, a former special assistant in Bill Clinton’s White House.

That’s what makes the nasty and strikingly personal response to DeVos’s nomination so bizarre. Within 72 hours of her nomination, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Tulane professor Doug Harris that concluded, “The DeVos nomination is a triumph of ideology over evidence that should worry anyone who wants to improve results for children.” The same day, Salon’s Matthew Rozsa wrote that DeVos “is a woman who never went to public school, nor sent her children to public school, nor worked for public schools. She does, however, come from a wealthy family that has donated millions to the Republican party. And she would be terrible for public education in this country.”

Within days of DeVos’s nomination, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by Columbia University professor Aaron Pallas that included this: “I’ve been joking that Ben Carson’s – Trump’s pick to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development – primary qualification is that he grew up in a house. But Betsy DeVos attended private schools and sent her children to them. Her qualification to be Secretary of Education? She doesn’t even have that going for her.”

In a December New Yorker story titled “Betsy DeVos and the Plan to Break Public Schools,” columnist Rebecca Mead lamented that DeVos graduated from Holland Christian High School, “which characterizes its mission thus: ‘to equip minds and nurture hearts to transform the world for Jesus Christ.’” The horror of it all. Apparently, the 5.4 million students enrolled in 33,000 private schools have no standing at the U.S. Department of Education, parents (like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton) who send their children to private schools have no standing in education policy, and graduates from religious schools are to be regarded with suspicion.

To appreciate fully the tenor of the response to DeVos, one should know that the national education debate usually proceeds with a modicum of civility. A year ago, when President Obama nominated former New York commissioner of education John King to be secretary of education, King was greeted courteously and approved rapidly by the Republican Senate — despite King’s troubled tenure in New York, one that featured a disastrous rollout of the Common Core. In fact, King’s warm reception followed seven years of troubling activity at the Obama Department of Education itself.

The national education debate usually proceeds with a modicum of civility. Not this time.

It’s worth recalling, also, how Arne Duncan, Obama’s first secretary of education, was greeted when nominated in 2008. Duncan, who had never taught, had served for seven years as superintendent of schools in Chicago — where he presided over some of the nation’s highest-paid teachers, mediocre student outcomes, and a massively underfunded pension fund. As a basketball-playing buddy of Obama’s, Duncan could have been attacked as nothing more than a Chicago crony. Instead, the response to Duncan was glowing. In the New York Times, reporter Sam Dillon wrote: “Arne Duncan, the Chicago schools superintendent known for taking tough steps to improve schools while maintaining respectful relations with teachers and their unions, is President-elect Barack Obama’s choice as secretary of education.” The Wall Street Journal’s Collin Levy termed Duncan “the CEO of the Chicago public schools and the ultimate diplomat.” Levy wrote: “Fans also note that he helped raise the cap on charter schools to 30 from 15. . . . He’s known for a flexibility that allows him to float between the traditional Democratic strongholds and the new wave of reformers in the party.”

#related#The results on Duncan and King’s watch have been unimpressive. Duncan’s overreach aggravated partisan distrust and eventually prompted bipartisan congressal majorities to clip the Department’s wings in the Every Student Succeeds Act. Duncan’s meddling helped make the Common Core into a divisive fiasco. Last year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress recorded widespread declines in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math following flat 2013 results, marking a disheartening downturn after long years of steady gains. This month, the Program for International Student Assessment reported that U.S. performance has declined steadily since 2009 in reading, math, and science — after a decade of rising scores. At a minimum, this record should counsel some humility on the part of those pundits so eager to preemptively declare DeVos a menacing ideologue.

Qualms about any appointee are understandable enough, but a Washington outsider and longtime crusader for educational improvement would seem a timely choice with more than a little appeal. You’d think that civil, moderate voices might allow for that possibility. Evidently not.

– Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.




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