Thursday, July 9, 2020

Betsy DeVos Is Failing Hard

In the midst of all this chaos and confusion, it's perhaps easy to miss how thoroughly Betsy DeVos is doing a terrible job as Secretary of Education. And by so many measures.

There's the business of managing college loans. DeVos, you may recall, has been pointedly spanked by the courts for going after students who owe money on their college loans even in those cases where the law clearly states she's supposed to lay off. She doesn't like loan forgiveness for people who enter public service or for folks who were ripped off by predatory for-profit colleges, despite being repeatedly told that the rules don't care how she feels about them.

Now she's doing it again by directly violating the CARES act. The CARES act mandates a full stop on garnishing wages for unpaid student loans, but the department has told the courts that they continued to do so (and blamed it on employers).

Meanwhile, after months of standing around offering zero guidance to schools navigating the coronavirus crisis, she has joined Trump in demanding that schools open in the fall. As in, regular bricks and mortar style opening, all the time. In the spring, she was all about opening virtually, which was at least consistent, since DeVos has long been an advocate for virtual schooling. Now, suddenly, virtual schooling isn't good enough. This is going to make it hard for her to return to advocating for cyber-school, but then consistency isn't turning out to be her strong suit.

Take her spirited belief in keeping the feds out of state business. That was her north star for a few years, and the heart of her criticism of the previous administration. Now she has decided that using federal arm-twisting and extortion to force state compliance with her personal policy goals is super-okay.

And nothing says federal overreach like her threat to withhold money from states unless they open up schools the way she wants them to.

DeVos's current behavior is also a great example of why it's a problem to have someone in the office who neither likes nor trusts the public schools she is theoretically supposed to lead and assist. To bolster her argument, DeVos has cited a CRPE study that shows about 1 in 3 districts was actually doing "real curriculum" over the spring pandemic pause. She actually mis-cited that as 10%, but the problem remains. DeVos seems to have concluded that the gap was the result of districts that are lazy, uncommitted, unambitious, or just happy find an excuse not to do their jobs, and so she has further concluded that what's needed are threats and punishments.

Someone who actually trusted and supported public education might have wondered if maybe challenges with technology or issues with training or even the department's own unclear guidance were making it hard for schools to work it all out. Nope-- DeVos just figures that public schools need threats and punishment more than resources and support. If a teacher stood in a classroom and declared that Pat is failing tests because Pat is lazy and trying to get out of doing the work and nothing was needed to teach Pat except lots of yelling a detentions and maybe no lunch until Pat gets those grades up, we would correctly conclude that this is a bad teacher who should get out of the classroom.

It's a fundamental problem-- when you put somebody in charge who neither likes, trusts, nor understands the organizations she's supposed to serve, you get lousy leadership. The person who believes that the building should be demolished is not a good person to have in charge while the building is on fire. When that person is also someone who has no real leadership background beyond whipping out her checkbook and saying, "I can either write something to help you or I can start backing your primary opponent," and that just makes things worse. And when it's also a person who doesn't believe they really answer to anybody...well, the bottom line here is that Betsy DeVos is very bad at her job at  moment when it would be really nice to have someone in that office who doesn't stink.

What school districts need right now is people at the top who ask, "What do you need? How can we help?" Schools need support, assistance, resources. Instead, all DC can offer is threats, baloneyand cluelessness. DeVos is failing hard, and everybody else is paying the price.


  1. Sounds like she is doing exactly what she was hired to do.

  2. Well, yeah, if you believe that "success" means improving education for the majority of American students, of course DeVos is failing. But that's not her definition. Retaining her job long enough to inflict the most harm on public education is her definition of success, by which she has succeeded wildly. I believe she is the only original Trump cabinet member/advisor left standing (or at least one of very few) and she's smart enough not to piss off her boss, so it's likely to remain that way.

  3. Looks like Biden will win, so who do you pick for his Secretary of Education? I haven't heard who he has in mind. It would be nice to hear who it is. It could be just a matter of six months and the whole scenario would be completely different.

    1. Maybe Arne Duncan or John King would be available.


  4. Thank you Peter. Let's say schools open and parents are forced to send their kids back to physical, covid-infested classrooms. It sure seems like the only alternatives would be truancy, virtual learning, homeschooling, or some sort of private alternative. Now that DeVos and the administration are changing their minds on virtual learning, wouldn't the only popular alternatives be homeschooling or private school? And isn't that what she has been pushing for with the Education Freedom Initiative? Something's fishy here (well, at least more than usual).