Monday, February 6, 2017

The DeVos Alarm Clock

The Betsy DeVos nomination, in its sturm and drang and distress and noise, is quite different from any nomination we've ever seen. And yet, Betsy DeVos is not that much different from what we've seen before.

As a political operative seeking to remake public education in her own preferred image, DeVos is a bush-league Bill Gates. "I'm rich. I've got a tn of money. Why shouldn't I rewrite the education rules to better suit my own preferences?" Granted, Bill Gates actually did something to earn his money beyond simply being conceived. So that's a difference. And Gates wants to remake education to suit technocrats, while DeVos seems more interested in creating a system that fits her personal version of Jesus. So that's a difference, too.

As an education expert, DeVos is someone who holds tight to her set of beliefs about how education should be run despite pushback from people who actually work in the field and despite the lack of any credible evidence for her preferences, which she actively rejects. In this respect, she is not really very different from Arne Duncan or John King or Rod Paige.

As a policy leader, DeVos values deference to moneyed interests.I think it's a mistake to think that DeVos is motivated by greed; like many of the folks playing this game, she uses money to keep score. It's not that it's important to grasp and grab at money-- it's just that wealth is a sign of God's favor, proof that you are a Better Person who has been justly rewarded for your Betterness. In this respect she is no different from many folks who work in government like, for instance, all the folks who let Bill Gates and Eli Broad and a dozen other well-heeled reformsters have a seat at the policy table because, hey, these guys are rich, so clearly they must be worth listening to. They must Know Something. They must be the Right Kind of People.

As I type this, the Democrats are continuing their long-form theater piece in which they take turns railing against some of the issues of privatization, the chopping of public education into parts and the selling of those parts to various corporate interests, and on one level I'm glad that the Democrats are actually saying something, but on the other hand, much of what they've been railing against has already been going on for well over a decade with nary a peep from any of them.

And while I would love to think they are now suddenly awake and aware that public education is being systematically attacked, I suspect that in the DeVos nomination, they have simply identified a hammer with which they can whack at Trump. When some reformsters worry about the splintering of the reform coalition, they're just recognizing that while it used to be politically expedient for some folks to back reform, right now it is politically expedient to oppose it. I'm never all that encouraged when people take my side for reasons that have nothing to do with matters of principle.

The good news though, is that while politicians swing back and forth in whatever stiff wind blows, there are plenty of regular citizens who have been startled awake by what the DeVos nomination has revealed. What!? There are people advocating education policies who don't know what they're talking about, who don't have any expertise in the field, whose main allegiance is to corporate moneyed interests, and who would rather destroy public education than strengthen it??!! Do tell. I'm shocked. Next you'll try to tell me that there are people involved in the US government who are racist and classist?!

Yes, some folks are going to want to berate these late-waking citizens for not catching on sooner, for just now awaking to concerns that others have been hollering about for years. That berating is wrong, a mistake, a bit of self-indulgence that we don't need. Teachers already know this truth-- people come to understanding in their own way and in their own time, and you cannot treat somebody like a unloved poor cousin because they got to the party later than you did.

DeVos has accomplished what nobody else could. Jeb Bush banked on education being a major topic of the Presidential campaign. He was wrong. Campbell Brown thought she could set herself up as a political force by positioning herself as an arbiter on education, betting that education would be a top concern of the election. Lots of folks thought that 2016 would be education's turn on the main stage. It never happened.

But now, somehow, in a field crowded with a plethora of terrible selections, education has emerged as the most contested, the most controversial, the most hotly debated cabinet appointment of them all. Education is actually having a major moment on the national stage.

Folks can say that the debate, the phone calls, the 24-hour Demo-harangue-- these are all a waste of time because the Senate will no more reject Betsy DeVos than a football team could blow a 17-point lead in the last minutes of a game.

But they are not a waste of time. DeVos, Trump, and their allies have been forced to use political capital-- hell, they've dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars of real capital to bolster her-- and hwne you can't prevent someone's victory, the least you can do is make them pay for it.

More than that, the commotion has awoken citizens. People who have never paid the slightest bit of attention can now tell you who the nominee for the Secretary of Education is, and why she's a bad choice. Thanks to DeVos and Al Franken, people who two weeks ago didn't even know there was more than one way to look at standardized test scores now have some inkling of the difference between growth and proficiency and why anyone cares.

Twenty-four hours from now, we'll probably have a terrible new Secretary of Education, and a huge portion of the electorate will already know to keep an eye on her from the very first day. And if they keep watching her, and keep growing in understanding of just what she's been up to, they will also start to notice that she's got plenty of company, and maybe folks will finally start to become alert to the ways in which our education system is being gutted and stripped.

DeVos is awful. She'll be awful every step of the way. She'll be the most awful occupant of the office in a long line of awful occupants. The only upside of that is that people, understanding her level of awful, may actually wake up and pay attention. It's not a full return for the shellacking public education is about to take, but it's not nothing, either. It's going to have to do for the moment. Let's just hope that after Tuesday everyone doesn't just roll over and go back to sleep.


  1. I hope you are right. You are right that a lot of parents that have been like sheep are now turning into grizzly bears. I like the anger and I'm feeling that I have a little more company when I talk to parents about scripted curriculum and test prep as education for their young cubs. Parents in masses are starting to take notice of what has been going on (or not going on) behind the brick walls of our once great public schools for the past 15-20 years and they are not liking what they are seeing. There is a whole generation of the test prepped entering college and the workforce and the parents are just starting to see the damage that has been done. They are angry.

  2. Right on Peter. Your insight offers small, but important, consolation. DeVos, and education policy in general, is now on the radar of a larger part of the electorate than ever before. I also agree with you in pointing out the silver lining, in some of your previous posts, that this takes the wind out of the sails of so many, so-called, bipartisan ed reformers. The GOP now owns this mess.

    Bennett Fischer
    PS 231K
    Brooklyn, NY