Of course Betsy DeVos was selected and approved to be the Secretary of Education. She donated millions of dollars to the republicans that voted for her. That is really all that matters. Politics aside, she was the perfect pick.
She is a product of the right-wing, evangelical Christofascists that have been percolating up through homeschool networks, school boards and community groups for decades. She may be nuttier than hell, she may be a zealot, but when she figures out which end of the very loud megaphone she’s just purchased, she could be a force. And not for good. If her history is any indication, she will be the messiah of Generation Joshua and a rock star for privately-run, for-profit charters, homeschool schemes, voucher initiatives and any other vehicle to stimulate the exodus of white kids and public tax dollars out of public schools.
She will be the billionaire’s model cabinet choice. Amongst an entire team of otherwise kiss-ass, rich white men– she is simultaneously the darling of the alt right– and public enemy number 2 of the NEA.
She is inexperienced and ignorant of the office she has purchased– so she’ll fit in well with the rest of her cabinet colleagues and her boss. As the heiress to Amway, she is a symbol of unfettered greed. She is a beneficiary of one of our nation’s most successful ponzi schemes and brings (thankfully) few transferable skills to benefit her new constituents.
Fortunately, the Constitution (like the president and his Amway heiress) is silent on education. So most of the responsibility for our public schools falls to individual states anyway. The power for oversight, accountability, standards (including the Common Core), teacher quality, school spending are vested in them alone. Most of the day-to-day authority to manage curriculum, instruction, student safety, professional development, school culture, organizational direction, and innovation…all fall to local schools and school districts and the real educators that actually run them.
My two schools– Mueller Charter School and Bayfront Charter High School– are both fiscally independent organizations with our own governing body. We sometimes ask for forgiveness but rarely ask for permission– for anything, local or otherwise. We didn’t need DeVos’s predecessors to create “El Milagro”– and we don’t need her either.
Betsy DeVos has never run any organization– let alone one with the scope and gravity of the Department of Education. But she wasn’t selected for her business acumen or for what she actually has to offer to our schools– she’s a metaphor and she won’t have the mandate, the reach or the time to destroy our public schools.
So who will DeVos be in the short time she has before the wheels come off the trump debacle and his house of cards?
She could be a champion for children but she won’t be. In her first opportunity to stand for kids that need us the most, she already failed.
She could be an advocate for educational equity— assuring that children do not suffer in ineffective schools as a result of their zip code or their family income. But instead of being a conduit for best practices– she will circle safely above, dropping vouchers from a helicopter. The challenges of overcoming the effects of poverty on learning are immense. They are well documented on this blog site. The skills and expertise and innovation and vision and commitment required to lift achievement in low income neighborhoods do not suddenly appear simply because parents are promised a golden ticket to a private school.
She could be a trustworthy steward of federal tax dollars and ensure that they are protected for the populations for which they were intended. Many public schools– mine included– have made huge strides in supporting children from low income communities. But we have depended on federal funding– promised primarily through IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. While less than 9% of our school funding comes from the federal government, it is critical in our service to populations with complex needs. But DeVos hinted as far back as 2001 that her world view of public education was steeped in faith-based philanthropy and the new world order: “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.”
Never mind how we might measure that advancement.
She could leverage the power of her office to seed innovation in schools across the country- but her experience in Michigan is with for-profit charters –not to be confused with organic, community-based, student-centered charter schools that grow from the collaborative efforts of parents and teachers. President Obama was eviscerated for having the temerity to earmark $4 billion to stimulate innovation through his Race for the Top initiative. Trump bloviates about committing $20 billion for a school voucher scheme. There is nothing innovative about schemes to accelerate white flight.
She could serve as a model of competence and an absolute commitment to the power educators have in every community. But nothing during the senate hearings suggested she knew the first thing about what it really means to teach or to run a school. In fact her responses were void of any substance at all- as if she had been coached to nod and smile and commit to nothing. And so she did. And for her efforts she was approved by the republican majority who evidently thought that having the ponzi lady at the helm of the Department of Education would be ok.
She could strengthen and promote the Office of Civil Rights, which enforces federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in programs that receive federal financial assistance from her Department of Education. She could stand up for our most vulnerable children who are bullied, tormented and victimized enough that the OCR is their last line (or only line) of defense. She could uphold the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and stand against discrimination on the basis of race or religion. Or she could stand for children protected by Title IX— especially youth from the LGBT community. Or she could stand for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990— if only she knew that that law too comes under her direction.
She could fight to preserve the office of Civil Rights in the face of so much conservative pressure to scrap the department altogether. But she withered in her first test when trump’s new attorney general, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, raised the stars and bars over the US Capital building and struck down Obama’s protections for trans children in public schools.
DeVos should have learned from the courage of Sally Yates that advocating for children is not a hobby. When you join the fight to protect them, you fucking fight with everything you have. You protect them with you words, your actions, your job…your very life. Or you stay out of the way. And that is Lesson #1 in school leadership.
Or maybe this newly appointed Secretary of Education could just stand there and do nothing but provide some buffer against a president who is bat-shit crazy. But of course, we’re not likely to see that either.
In speaking to a friendly CPAC audience this past week, DeVos said: “it’s our job to protect students and to do that to the fullest extent that we can and also to provide students, parents and teachers with more flexibility about how education is delivered and how education is experienced and to protect and preserve personal freedoms.”
Fortunately, our children aren’t actually depending on her for protection at all. And we don’t need permission to exercise our flexibility or autonomy.
Today we can thank the Founding Fathers for leaving public education to the states. Betsy Devos is an empty suit. An empty chair. A checkbook. A diversity pick. A lost opportunity to actually lead. A metaphor for the dangerous path our nation is on. The perfect choice for trumpamerika.