Okay, she has several problems, but one problem exists at the intersection of all her larger problems in the office.
Earlier this week, DeVos wagged her federal finger at the Council of Chief State School Officers. She wanted to deliver some "tough love" to the states, scolding them for producing new ambition-free education plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that were "more focused on compliance than innovation."
Just because a plan complies with the law doesn’t mean it does what’s best for students. Whatever the reasons, I see too many plans that only meet the bare minimum required by the law. Sure, they may pass muster around conference tables in Washington, but the bare minimum won’t pass muster around kitchen tables.
|Yes, I'm holding a big box of nothing, right here|
Who told the states they could get away with doing just the bare minimum going-through-the-motions compliance? Well, that's part of her problem-- Betsy DeVos told them that.
On numerous occasions, DeVos has made it clear that she thinks that DC should keep their nose out of this. It's not her job as United States Secretary of Education to tell states how best to obey the laws that are enforced by the United States Department of Education.
This is extra problematic because the law is, at many points, exceptionally unclear. Lawmakers peppered it with words like "ambitious" and "challenging" and left the Department to figure out what they actually mean. Only DeVos is of the opinion that the Department has no business telling anybody what anything means. And at the same time, Betsy DeVos has a pretty good idea what those words should mean.
We've seen her use this approach in other places. Going all the way back to her confirmation hearing, we can see that, on the one hand, she thinks certain sorts of discrimination shouldn't happen, but on the other hand, she can't imagine a situation where she would use the power of the Department to tell a school to stop practicing any of those sorts of discrimination.
This oversight issue has been the issue that folks, particularly conservative folks, have been watching all along. Once DeVos got her hands on the wheels of power, would she use them? The answer seems to be no, she won't. She'll just make a frowny face if she doesn't like what's happening.
This dilemma plays into several of her key weaknesses as an education secretary.
First, as a lifelong Very Rich Person, one who has never held a job outside of the family business, DeVos has little knowledge of how things get done outside her rich person bubble. Inside the bubble, a frowny face is probably more than enough to get the wheels turning and people hopping. She's never had to play the game by anything but DeVos rules. But outside the bubble, there are plenty of people who don't care if she's frowning because they didn't go her idea of an extra mile.
Second, she lacks both the experience and the heft to wield the bully pulpit. Yes, she has worked as an activist and lobbyist-- but always with a checkbook and political connections in hand. When a legislator in Michigan wouldn't choose to do the right thing, the DeVos way was to threaten him with a primary challenge that would end his career. She has no such leverage against the governors. If she wants to speak on matters of public education policy, she speaks with no more expertise than any random person pulled off the street. Imagine someone who has worked for decades in education saying, "Well, if DeVos thinks that's a good idea, maybe there's something to it."
The bully pulpit does not automatically bestow attention, wisdom, and heft on whoever steps up to it. If you want people to pay heed, you have to bring something with you, and DeVos does not.
Third, she has no reserve of trust to build on. Her experience with public education is in trying to dismantle it, and that doesn't exactly inspire trust. One of her few clear policy directions is favor the interests of businesses (like loan companies and for-profit colleges) over the interests of students. She has a long history of calling public education names (like dead end). And she would really like to see public money financing private schools. None of that inspires trust.
Fourth, DeVos is lousy at articulating her vision for schools. She just made a trip to Parkland and the school that was the scene of the terrible murder of seventeen students and teachers; afterwards, she held a press conference at which she sort-of-answered-ish five questions, and then zipped off without even saying goodbye. Or look at her recent stock photo tweet in which she tried to make the point that public schools haven't changed in 100 years, but instead made the point that she doesn't know what the inside of a modern classroom looks like. If she has a strong vision of what she wants US education to look like, she either can't or won't articulate it either in broad strokes or sharp details.
At times it looks as if DeVos really wants to be a leader, but after a lifetime of being followed and obeyed, she doesn't seem to know how to lead in a situation where her wealth and connections don't do her any good. She's been given the actual power attached to the USED-- but she doesn't believe in using it. She won't use the levers she has, and she doesn't have access to the levers she has preferred to use in the past.
Just as her boss has destroyed US "soft power," the power to persuade and cajole without resorting to threats and sabre rattling and big martial parades, DeVos has acquired no "soft power" to operate in her office. She's got formal power that she doesn't want to use, and a bully pulpit that she's incapable of using. She's stuck between the power she doesn't want, and the power she doesn't have.
What could DeVos do to move forward?
Well, she could go ahead and flex her federal muscles and make states bring her ESSA plans that she actually likes. She could find ways to leverage the power of her office to get states to do what she wants them to do. But she doesn't seem to want that, and honestly, I don't want her to do it-- other than to protect the rights of people who don't have protection of their rights and interests on any other level.
Barring that, DeVos could attempt to build soft power. She could make an honest effort to get out into public schools-- lots of public schools-- and get a look at what is actually going on. And she could pair that "eyes and ears" tour with a moratorium on saying stupid things that broadcast how little she knows about public education in 2018. She could hire some top people to help her run the department instead of hiring corporate reformsters whose main interest is to loot and grab. She could articulate-- no, honestly, I don't know how she fixes this, unless it turns out she's not after the policies she has indicated she's after. Her goals, as nearly as they can be deduced, are complete anathema to a robust public education system. She really has no business being Secretary of Education-- and I say that not because I think she's a terrible awful person, but because when you're in charge of an enterprise which has goals and values diametrically opposed to your own, it's not good for anybody. Certainly not education, the country, the taxpayers, and probably not even DeVos herself.
There she sits in DC, unable (and unwilling) to use the department to effectively pursue her own policy goals, and unwilling (and unable) to use the department to support public education in this country. The DeVosian dilemma is that everybody loses, and public education in America loses extra hard. Of course, since this comes on the heels of the King Katastrophe, the Duncan Disaster and a string running all the way back to the Paige Pee-down-his-Pants-leg, we may need to take a hard look at the Department of Education. But that's a conversation for another day. In the meantime, we'll just have to watch DeVos struggle between the lever and the pulpit, like a fish flopping sadly on the dry beach of a frozen Great Lake.