The miseducation of Betsy DeVos

Don't be fooled — Trump's secretary of education knows exactly what she's doing

Illustration by Eric Millikin (apologies to Lauryn Hill)

The first thing you notice about Betsy DeVos — President Donald Trump's choice to run the United States Department of Education — is that she is rich.

Actually, the word "rich" doesn't really do it justice. Cookie batter is rich. Betsy DeVos is wealthy in the way that Donald Trump wishes he was (and very well may be by the time his presidency is over).

Betsy DeVos is on another level entirely.

Begin with the family money. Before Betsy DeVos was a DeVos, she was a Prince — the daughter of Edgar Prince, to be specific. Prince père ran a successful auto parts manufacturing business in Holland, Michigan, which he had built into a billion-dollar empire by the time of his death. Prince used some of his personal wealth to bankroll what would become the organizational infrastructure of the religious right, providing vital seed money for conservative Christian advocacy groups like the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family.

Bringing about one of the largest mergers of conservative wealth, Betsy married into the DeVos family, whose patriarch — father-in-law Richard DeVos — had built a multibillion-dollar fortune as the co-founder of multilevel marketing behemoth Amway.

Taken as a whole, hers isn't merely the sort of wealth that renders one "out of touch" with the common man — it's a fortune that has shielded DeVos from anything that even remotely resembles hardship from the time she was born until now. She has had no real contact or experience with adversity of any kind. She is almost a celestial body — untouched and untrammeled by the obstacles and pitfalls that the vast majority of the American people have to navigate on a daily basis.

And for that same vast American majority, education — and all of the mobility and opportunity it offers — is the primary vehicle by which they have to surmount the myriad challenges they face. It should be a matter of great concern that the person who now oversees America's educational infrastructure has never even nominally shared in these struggles.

Of course, with Betsy DeVos, the educational concerns don't end there. She has long yearned to radically transform public education, dramatically increasing the number of private and religious schools that educate American children. She's called U.S. public schools a "dead end" and in 2001, she explained how her school choice advocacy is driven by a desire to "advance God's kingdom." Aside from her ideological Christian fervor, she and her family also strongly support recreating schools in a more plutocratic image, where they can reward those entrepreneurial innovators looking to make a buck. When Trump tapped her to serve as his Education Secretary the public raised a hue and cry that even caught the liberal activists in the raise-a-hue-and-cry business by surprise.

Fittingly, however, DeVos' appointment has given her an illuminating first taste of what adversity actually feels like.

From the very moment DeVos' Senate confirmation hearing kicked off on Jan. 17, 2017, there was an unmistakable sign that President Trump's newly anointed education czarina was in for a rough ride.

Republican operatives who had handled her confirmation training were watching nervously. Her lead sherpa through the process, Lauren Maddox, was a registered lobbyist with the Podesta Group — not a former lobbyist now getting back into public service, but an actual, current lobbyist paid by corporate clients for her ability to sway public policy. Maddox, a former Bush administration Education Department official, as well as a past aide to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, had the task of educating DeVos on education.

DeVos made a less than ideal student. "Her mind didn't naturally go to different places," recalled one participant in the confirmation training sessions, rather charitably. "She was a very visual person, so she had to have the stuff color coded in front of her."

That, though, presented its own problems, as the team knew that if the color-coded flashcards were visible on camera, it would be a major embarrassment, so pains were made to keep them off screen. "You don't want to have all those things out there because people can see it," the GOP official noted.

Fortunately, DeVos would get some help during her hearings from the person running the show. The Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), Lamar Alexander — himself a former U.S. Secretary of Education who'd served as the senior senator from Tennessee since 2003 — gaveled the hearing into session and immediately started setting some rather unusual ground rules, proclaiming that each committee member would be granted only five minutes to question the nominee. Alexander asserted that this was to be the hearing's "Golden Rule" — a precedent he claimed had been firmly established by past confirmation hearings including those of President Barack Obama's nominees for the Education Department.

It was not, as Democratic ranking member Patty Murray made clear, a precedent with which anyone on the committee had hitherto been familiar. And despite Alexander's repeated protests that it was, in fact, "as clear a precedent as I could think of," it led to every Democrat on the panel accusing Alexander of working to shield DeVos from their scrutiny.

Of course, Democrats' demand for additional questioning time was driven by another precedent: None of the previous nominees being held out by Alexander as examples were quite so burdened with ethical quandaries. Indeed, DeVos' hearing had, at this point, already been postponed due to her failure to complete her required review with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, a failure which only primed the pump for increased suspicion and a wider inquiry.

And beyond that, DeVos had, by this point, a long, well-documented history of antipathy toward America's public schools — a veritable feast for anyone with the moxie to hold her to account.

So it's not hard to see why Democrats entered the hearing ready to dig down into DeVos' murky history and her ideological beliefs, or why Alexander would want to use the convenience of his HELP committee chairmanship to throw up as many procedural barricades as he could. The goal for Alexander was to shelter the billionaire heiress from tough questioning. The goal for DeVos was not to create any viral videos.

Then-President-elect Donald Trump meets with Betsy DeVos in Bedminster, N.J. in 2016. - A. KATZ
A. Katz
Then-President-elect Donald Trump meets with Betsy DeVos in Bedminster, N.J. in 2016.

As it would turn out, however, Alexander's efforts proved insufficient. Really, nothing short of canceling the hearing entirely would have helped DeVos avoid exposing the fact that for someone with such strongly held opinions about education, she knew precious little about education.

In fact, one of the most widely puzzled-over answers that DeVos gave during her confirmation hearing was in response to a very direct question, posed by then-Minnesota Senator Al Franken. When Franken started in on his line of inquiry, he began by asking her a seemingly softball question regarding the appropriate way to use standardized tests. "I would like your views," he asked DeVos, "on the relative advantage of doing assessments and using them to measure proficiency, or to measure growth."

It was, without a doubt, a wonky question — the sort that would likely not have been familiar to anyone outside of the education industry. But in terms of beginning a line of inquiry, this was a rather innocuous place to start. Growth versus proficiency is not considered an obscure education policy debate, but a rather fundamental one. Those who are concerned with "proficiency" favor measuring whether children are achieving certain education milestones in a timely fashion, like the ability to read at grade level. Those who take up the "growth" side of the debate would prefer that testing account for whether children are making sufficient progress over the course of a school year.

In asking the question, Franken was simply trying to establish a benchmark with DeVos, a way to better assess her overall views on school accountability. He could not have possibly expected the answer he got.

"I think if I am understanding your question correctly around proficiency," said DeVos, "I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so each student is measured according to the advancement they are making in each subject area."

"That's growth, that's not proficiency," interrupted Franken. "I'm talking about the debate between proficiency and growth, and what your thoughts are."

A gaffe in Washington is famously said to occur when a politician speaks the truth accidentally. This was a different sort of gaffe, an accidental revelation of a stunning level of ignorance. It turned out she had no thoughts on the question.

Elsewhere, at least, she had vague thoughts. When Senator Murray asked DeVos whether or not she would commit herself to neither working to privatize public schools, nor cutting "a single penny for public education," DeVos simply gave a boilerplate answer about how she looked forward to "working with you to talk about how to address the needs of all parents and students ... to find common ground in ways we can solve those issues and empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them."

"I take that as not being willing to commit to not privatize public schools," responded Murray.

When it was Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren's turn to question the nominee, Warren turned her attention to for-profit universities and the Education Department's role in policing such entities. Warren asked DeVos how she would go about protecting students from being scammed. When DeVos answered that she would be "vigilant," it wasn't enough for Warren, who wanted to know how, exactly, she'd set about ensuring that predatory fraudsters would not victimize students. DeVos did not seem to grasp that there were tools, like gainful employment regulations, already at her disposal to aid in this fight. And once DeVos was informed of her options, she refused to commit to using them, instead telling Warren that she would "review" those regulations.

The word ‘incompetent’ gets overused in Washington, but for many it was a term that aptly described Betsy DeVos.

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"I don't understand about reviewing it," said a perplexed Warren. "We talked about this in my office. There are already rules in place to stop waste, fraud and abuse. ... Swindlers and crooks are out there doing back flips when they hear an answer like this."

And yes, there was that moment when DeVos, attempting to explain why it was sensible for "locales and states to decide" whether or not guns belong in public schools, cited the need for teachers to have "a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies." Never let it be said that DeVos couldn't serve up a much-needed viral headline to the media.

The word "incompetent" gets overused in Washington, but for many — judging, perhaps, a little too prematurely — it was a term that aptly described Betsy DeVos. Her confirmation hearing, it must be said, went a long way toward reinforcing that perception, revealing a nominee who often seemed as woefully adrift on the basics of education as she was certain that she knew the best possible way to oversee it.

And so, Congress' phone banks heaved and cracked under the volume of calls, beseeching her swift dismissal. Two Republican senators, Alaska's Lisa Murkowski and Maine's Susan Collins, stunned at the opposition pouring through their phone lines, took heed and announced that they would be withholding their support for her nomination, while several others wavered.

Losing those two votes forced the Trump administration to hustle Vice President Mike Pence up to Capitol Hill to cast the tie-breaking vote on a Senate confirmation, something that had previously never been required. DeVos had made it, by the thinnest of margins — the first Secretary of Education ever confirmed without bipartisan support. Pence would refer to casting the deciding vote — a ritual humiliation for any administration — as a "high honor."

But it was Collins and Murkowski who should be credited for doing the honorable thing — looking past the ideological ambitions of their party in order to consider the needs of their own constituents. For both women, DeVos' devotion to charters and school vouchers posed a real threat, as their states feature far-flung communities for whom public school is the only available option. Choice is merely a word when there's only one school within miles and miles.

"I think that Mrs. DeVos has much to learn about our nation's public schools, how they work, and the challenges they face," said Murkowski in a speech on the Senate floor. "And I have serious concerns about a nominee to be secretary of education who has been so involved on one side of the equation, so immersed in the push for vouchers, that she may be unaware of what actually is successful within the public schools and also what is broken and how to fix them."

In this limited respect, Murkowski really had DeVos pegged. But even Murkowski failed to appreciate the extent of the nominee's inadequacies, because despite being "immersed in the push for vouchers," DeVos arrived in Washington with such a spotty record of both advocating for and implementing her grand designs, that even her fellow travelers in the voucher and charter movement — a community of ersatz thought leaders who'd normally not think twice about redirecting public money to private-sector schemes or disemboweling a teachers' union — were hesitant, if not wholly averse, to supporting her nomination.

For example, while New York magazine politics writer Jonathan Chait — who frequently bedevils liberals for his unalloyed support for charter schools — didn't find DeVos to be Trump's most objectionable nominee, he nevertheless proclaimed his opposition to DeVos on the grounds that she was an incapable avatar of the charter school movement. "It's important to understand what is actually concerning about DeVos," Chait wrote. "In addition to lacking policy heft, she is in the grip of simplistic ideas about education and she sees parental choice as a panacea. If parents can choose which school to send their children to, she believes, competition will inevitably force improvement. From the standpoint of center-left education reforms, this is dangerously simplistic."

Chait, noting that charter school performance varies widely across the country, targeted Michigan's charter system — which DeVos had a strong hand in shaping — for its lack of sufficient oversight and its utterly dismal nationwide ranking.

Michigan State Board of Education President John Austin, who is also a strong supporter of charter schools, concurred, telling Politico: "The bottom line should be, 'Are kids achieving better or worse because of this expansion of choice?'" His state's policies, Austin said, were "destroying learning outcomes." "The DeVoses were a principal agent of that," he asserted.

It's easy to paint a fretful portrait of DeVos. Her track record as a reformer, coupled with her consistent inability to account for the most basic educational concepts, is enough to leave anyone with the firm impression that she simply does not know what she's doing.

But to borrow from Marco Rubio, a supporter of DeVos, "let's dispel once and for all with this fiction" that Betsy DeVos doesn't know what she's doing.

She knows exactly what she's doing.