Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Is Betsy DeVos a Nothingburger?

While I was poking through the big list of articles I hung onto from last year, I noticed several things that I hadn't really caught as they were happening. But as I scanned backward, it seems that interest in and concern about Betsy DeVos slowly decreased.

When her selection was first announced and her hearing was held, plenty of folks were somewhere between Hugely Alarmed and Panic Stricken.  She would enshrine national vouchers in policy. She would dismantle the education department. She would destroy the teachers unions and gut public education. She would install a theocratic regime laced with monumental stupid. She was so bad that even people who could not name another education secretary can name, and decry, her. As she had in Michigan, she would take a Godly chain saw to public education while raising up corporate privatization in its place. And at this stage, I don't think there's much doubt that all those goals are her dream.

Yet other signs were there from Day One as well-- the signs of a total lack of qualifications that would thwart her in the office.

She is used to dealing with legislators with bluster and a checkbook. She does not know how to deal with Congress.

She has never run a large organization before, never held a regular job. She's almost never dealt with people who are not paid to agree with her. Now she is trapped in a big tangly organizational web based on the sorts of workplace and bureaucratic interactions she doesn't know how to do.

She has no experience with public education, and that ignorance runs from top to bottom. She doesn't have experience with the dailiness of working in a school, and she doesn't have experience looking at the ways policies affect the operation of schools. She's like a woman whose only experience with music is in listening to live symphony concerts, and no she has to run a high-end stereo system with nothing but directions written in Sanskrit, and just literally does not know what any of the knobs and buttons and wires do.

Hers is not the ignorance of someone who doesn't know what he doesn't know. DeVos reminds me of a student from years ago. A colleague teaching the gifted class started a unit on comparative religion, looking at the world's many faiths, and this student (we'll call her Pat) refused to study the unit. My colleague asked why and Pat, a hard-right conservative Christian explained-- "I don't need to know anything about the other religions, because they are all wrong." I suspect that DeVos never thought she needed to study up for her job or education regulations or how things get done in DC because all of that stuff is just wrong anyway, and in her righteous rightness, she would just plough through and above it all.

And so, as we look back at 2017, we don't see that she's accomplished much. She has been great at sitting on her hands and avowing the department's commitment to doing nothing, protecting nothing and nobody except the interests of corporate private interests. And that's not nothing-- it allows folks like predatory lenders and predatory private school operators to prey with impunity. But she couldn't get Congress to even pretend to work with her to implement any of her policy wish list, and as a member of a do-nothing administration, she has done more nothing than almost anyone.

Betsy DeVos looked like she was going to be Dolores Umbridge, tearing through beloved institutions and programs with destructive simper. Instead, she has turned out to be the teacher who sits at her desk, giving free days for half the semester and barely getting up to lead the class the other half, until the students come to understand that she can be ignored.

Secretaries like Arne Duncan and John King could really get in there and actively tear things up. Duncan wanted to impose Common Core on states and he by-God rewrote and circumvented laws to do it. But the DeVos era is increasingly defined by what she doesn't do, what she doesn't enforce, what she doesn't continue, what she doesn't refuse to stand up for.

Granted, that is undoubtedly part of her set of goals-- to reduce the Department of Education to an inert blob that doesn't get in the way. This is destructive in its own way-- I expect that as the DeVosian era continues, we will continue to see Bad Actors emboldened by her inaction, like the student who tests the rules with greater and greater misdeeds as they realize that nobody is going to impose consequences on them. Racist policies? Ripping off students and taxpayers? Deliberate flouting of regulations? Well, that's just a state matter, and the feds won't say boo.

There are many important conversations about education going on in this country, but increasingly it's clear that DeVos is not and will not be part of them, partly because nobody feels the need to include her, partly because she doesn't feel any need to join in, and partly because she really doesn't understand most of what's being said.

We get the occasional prediction that DeVos will resign (here's NPR saying it again today), and maybe she will decide she wants to go back to working as a well-heeled lobbyist who can buy the kind of cooperation she needs. But I also wonder-- why bother to resign from a job that you're not actually doing (or taking pay for)? DeVos has not so much occupied the office as filled it with a DeVos-shaped void. Claudio Sanchez calls DeVos "irrelevant and isolated" and that seems about right. But that may be just how she likes it.

At the end of a year, DeVos's priorities-- or at least preferences-- remain clear. What is not clear is her path to actually accomplishing any of them. She has no allies in Congress. Her boss is unlikely to care much about what a sixty-year-old woman has to say about anything. And she can try talking to the rest of us, but is there anyone, really, who takes her seriously on the subject of national education policy? She certainly represents may of the existential threats to public education, but as Secretary of Education, I'm beginning to believe that she 's just a big nothingburger.


  1. "If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars."

  2. Agreed. Her nothingburger-ness has also been coincidentally supported by the fact that ESSA plan review has sucked up a huge amount of energy in key departments at ED and at the same time Congress put some serious limits on what ED could tell states to do or not do. So at least in terms of ESSA, the system was sort of set up for a nothingburger of a secretary and just happened to get one.

  3. She may be a nothingburger and she may be ready to call it quits because she can't get her way. The appointment of Frank Brogan as a deputy should be a very loud signal that something is going to happen soon. If we thought Arne and "the King" were bad, we are certainly in for a rough road with Brogan. At least with Betsy D, we know she is stupid, ignorant, racist and greedy.

  4. When it comes to education, DeVos knows nothing, when she speaks - she says nothing, she has accomplished nothing, she has no ideas, she has no political currency, and she has absolutely no chance of getting her 20 billion dollar voucher plan implemented. In a cabinet where virtually every secretary is in way over their head, Betsy might as well be at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. And Peter, please stop insulting nothingburgers.

  5. Yes, a nothingburger, laced with e-coli...