Battling the Beast That Ate School Choice
By “Horace Mann”
The rage and hostility and contempt had been percolating since last spring, and then, when Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gave an interview to 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl, the percolator erupted into a tsunami.
“Betsy DeVos’s disastrous interview shows the limitations of being rich,” read the headline in the Washington Post. “Betsy DeVos Teaches the Value of Ignorance,” said the New York Times. A congressman from North Carolina, in a tweet, accused DeVos of being “rich, white and dumber than a bag of hammers.”
The interview even prompted the Post to sic its two house “humorists” on the secretary. “Betsy DeVos has definitely seen a school once,” one of them wrote cleverly. The other used this headline: “The unappreciated genius of Betsy DeVos.” He was being sarcastic. Sarcasm never fails to kill. It’s comedy gold. (I’m being sarcastic.)
DeVos – also known to her more sophisticated critics as Ditzy DeVos, Betsy DeVille, and Cruella DeVos – has become the most controversial member of President Donald Trump’s cabinet. This is saying something. For liberals and Democrats, Trump’s cabinet is the most target-rich environment since Sgt. York lowered his sights on that trenchful of German soldiers at the Battle of Meuse-Argonne.
Aside from its singular intensity, there was nothing new in this expression of DeVos Hate. A philanthropist, businesswoman, and Republican activist, she has long been reviled by the teachers’ unions in her home state of Michigan. Her particular crime has been to throw a fairly large chunk of her billion-dollar inherited fortune behind the cause of school choice – a system of taxpayer-funded vouchers that would allow poor parents to send their children to the private, public, or charter school of their own preference.
DeVos’ enemies see school choice as a raid on the public purse – a sly way to undermine the public-school system by redistributing tax money to schools beyond the grasp of government administrators and their union allies. When Trump chose DeVos to be his secretary of education, the fear that she would nationalize her school-choice crusade sent shivers up every progressive spine.
After a rocky confirmation hearing, DeVos took her seat in the education department’s hideous headquarters off the National Mall and began behaving just as her enemies feared: She started getting things done.
We can assume that DeVos, like other conservatives and libertarians, thinks the Department of Education is a waste of time and a misbegotten federal intrusion into a sphere that properly belongs to the states. For 40 years, its most obvious function has been to bolster the vast, parasitic education establishment – that unsightly agglomeration of teachers’ unions, education schools, trade associations, and government planners that an earlier secretary of education aptly called “The Blob.”
The Blob’s great ambition, in the view of outsiders like DeVos, is to block school reform.
The Blob’s great ambition, in the view of outsiders like DeVos, is to block school reform. This isn’t completely true, however. Every couple years, a new fad is incubated in the ed schools, passed through the unions, and imposed on teachers who scramble to catch up with hours of after-class training. They learn freshly minted techniques and jargon of dubious validity that will be replaced in a few years by the new techniques and new jargon of yet another fad.
Meanwhile, as DeVos points out, the United States stagnates in international rankings: 23rd in reading, 25th in science, 40th in math. Two-thirds of American fourth-graders can’t read at their grade level.
One of DeVos’s salutary achievements has been to repeat these sorry statistics at every opportunity. She has resisted all efforts to further centralize power in Washington, and adamantly refused to concede that The Blob’s preferred solution – spend more money – is necessary or wise. The U.S. already spends more money per pupil than most developed countries.
If DeVos’ achievements were merely rhetorical, she might not have provoked the DeVos Hate. But she is still an activist and agitator. She has dismantled earlier fads The Blob has concocted – most recently, the infamous Common Core Standards imposed nationwide during the Obama years at bottomless expense.
She has rescinded more than 600 “guidance documents” the department routinely issues to bully schools into operating the way the feds want them to. She withdrew the Obama administration’s sinister “Dear Colleague” letter to colleges and universities dictating standards for adjudicating claims of sexual assault. She asked Congress (unsuccessfully) to drastically cut the department’s budget even as she sought (successfully) large increases in school-choice funds.
Any one of these would have been enough to draw the disapproving eye of Lesley Stahl and 60 Minutes. DeVos appeared desperately uneasy during her interview. She stuttered and stammered. In one sense it’s hard to blame her. With her wide-eyed insincerity and censorious stare, Lesley Stahl is one of the scariest looking newscasters in America. Her specialty is the not-really-a-question.
“Why have you become, people say, the most hated Cabinet secretary?” Stahl asked.
What’s the proper answer to such a question? “Because I’m a monster, Lesley. I’m easy to hate”?
But DeVos rallied and her answer – “I think there are a lot of powerful forces allied against change” – was pretty good, and had the added benefit of being true. (The “people say” in Stahl’s question was a nice touch, by the way – the reporter’s equivalent of “I’m asking this question for a friend.”)
It’s hard to know how to answer a not-really-a-question whose premise is nakedly untrue, as when Stahl flatly told DeVos that “things are getting better” in America’s schools. For a moment DeVos looked nonplussed at this ignorant assertion, which in turn gave her detractors the chance to say she looked ill-informed and clueless. They particularly pounced on her answer to another non-question: “Have you seen the really bad schools?”
“I have not,” DeVos said haltingly, “I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.”
The question was cleverly posed. Of course the secretary of education has seen bad schools! It’s a doubly pointless question in the case of someone like DeVos, who has spent two decades promoting school choice in inner cities. Stahl knows as much.
But again, what would be a proper answer? Maybe Stahl felt the cause of improving schools would be better served if the secretary of education answered like this: “Oh hell yes, Les. Rufus T. Firefly Middle School in Slippery Rock is a cesspool. And Wolf J. Flywheel High in Potterville – I’d rather watch an autopsy than set foot in that dump again…”
No answer would have satisfied Stahl or anyone else gripped by the fever of DeVos Hate. Singling out as “really bad,” on national television no less, any of the schools that hosted visits by DeVos would have been demoralizing and insulting to her hosts. And of course DeVos would have been reviled for saying it. But more: It would have been impolite.
And here we get to an essential element of DeVos’s dilemma.
Betsy DeVos is a supremely rich Midwesterner, born and bred. But no amount of money can squeeze that Midwestern twang out of her voice. The customary diffidence of the Midwesterner, which DeVos has in huge helpings, often looks to the sophisticated eye, trained in Manhattan and the Northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., like sheer dopiness.
Devos’ good manners, according to a hostile and hyperpartisan press, are a sign of weakness.
Midwesterners are raised with the idea that to talk about oneself too much, or to argue fervently about politics, are plain bad manners. And good manners, according to the inversions of a hostile and hyperpartisan press, are taken as a sign of weakness.
And so they pounce. But even this isn’t the whole story. Perhaps the wellspring of DeVos Hate can be found in the first line of another New York Times editorial alerting its readers to the evil she embodies. It was a quote from one of DeVos’ speeches, a line that elegantly summarizes her own philosophy (even if it does overstep the bounds of Midwestern propriety) and irreversibly brands her as an enemy:
“Horace Mann” is a pseudonym for someone who works in the executive branch and is what we journalists call “a highly-place source who requests anonymity because he or she is no damn fool.”