Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Did DeVos Get A Raw Deal

In today's National Review, Rick Hess is suggesting that Betsy DeVos got a raw deal, that attacks on her "have taken a torch to the basic standards of public discourse and democratic civility." 

Hess acknowledges some of the issues surrounding her as legit ones:

During her tempestuous tenure in office, DeVos evoked strong feelings among her critics. Many disagreed vehemently with her views on school choice, religious freedom, and government regulation. They profusely criticized her talk of “factory-model government schools” and often deemed her ill-prepared for the role. Many thought she should never have agreed to serve under Trump, or else should have resigned in response to his earlier provocations. These complaints are legitimate and fair grounds for tough-minded debate.

But Hess finds attacks on DeVos go above and beyond that, and often "curiously unmoored from what she has actually done in office." Here he has a bit of a point. DeVos somehow entered popular culture pictured as a fool and a dope; I've argued before that while it may be fun to imagine DeVos as the dimmest kid in class (you may have seen the "Dere Mr. Presidne I resine" meme floating about), I don't think it's a particular fair or accurate caricature of her.

Hess also hints at another argument in DeVos's favor when he alleges that most of her critics can't actually point to awful things she's done. She messed with Title IX rules. She cut the Office of Civil Liberties off at the knees. She consistently sided with predatory for-profit colleges over defrauded students (you've probably already forgotten her plan to sic the IRS on borrowers). But many of her noteworthy actions were notable for her failure, like her repeatedly thwarted attempts to steer extra stimulus dollars to private schools, just part of the DeVos Ed Department's record-breaking 455 lawsuits

It did not help that she was uniformly terrible at articulating her ideas. Arne Duncan may have stunk as a secretary of education, but he could, occasionally, sound like a guy with a vision. From her terrible confirmation hearing appearance to her terrible 60 Minutes interview to her various terrible Congressional hearing appearances, DeVos showed that thirty years of practicing checkbook politics really doesn't prepare you to make your case to people who are not either already in agreement or hope to be beholden to you. She was the queen of the non-answer, which added to the myth of her dopiness. I've argued before that the real explanation is some combination of her checkbook advocacy past and her conservative Christianist faith. She was also a good soldier for Trump, and spent some time looking at the underside of the bus; the annual theatrics of an education budget that zeroed out the Special Olympics budget which she would dutifully defend until Trump stepped in to un-zero it, all of which smells very much like the standard Trumpian arsonist firefighter shtick, where he would create a problem so that he could heroically solve it. 

But let's face it. Far fewer people were interested in understanding DeVos when it was easier to just hate her.

Hess wants to argue that she was a mostly-unknown outside-the-box candidate that was held to a double standard; he suggests that Miguel Cardona is not being held accountable for Connecticut schools in the same way DeVos was blamed for Michigan and Detroit's schools. But there is no double standard there. Cardona has barely been in office a year. Hess argues that DeVos never held a position of authority in Michigan, but that's disingenuous--DeVos spent decades using her fortune to bend Michigan lawmakers to her will. Remember this classic DeVos quote on her family's political spending:

I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.

Betsy DeVos deserves plenty of blame for her failed experiments in Michigan.

Was that enough reason for folks (at least folks outside of Michigan) to take such an intense dislike to her? Probably not. But DeVos engendered plenty of ill will on her own.

She was a fine example of the outsider myth. In a soft, fuzzy exit interview with Hess, she said that because she didn't know all the things "you 'can't do'" she came in with "fresh eyes and a laser focus on rethinking the ways we approach all aspects of work at the department." It's a pretty thought, but as many folks pointed out early on, DeVos was spectacularly unqualified for the job-- had never held down a real adult job, never spent time in a public school, never run a large organization, and the ones she had run she ran via her fortune and political clout, so she'd never had to sell an idea to a boss or a peer. I say that not to argue she's a terrible person, but to point out that these, plus the general insulation of living one's entire life swaddled in wealth, meant there was no reason to think she had any of the skills needed for the job. "outsider status," is not a qualification. I don't want my brain surgery performed by someone who has "fresh eyes" because they have spent all their time outside the medical field.

DeVos never disguised her contempt for public education, for the "government schools" that she views as a "dead end," and she repeatedly struck out against the "education cabal" or even the "unholy mob." There were some attempts to at least look interested in public schools, like trading visits with Randi Weingarten, or her disastrous visit to a DC school where she criticized teachers for being in "receiver mode." But mostly she conveyed the message that there wasn't anything she didn't know about public schools that she needed to know. She called education an industry, compared it to Ubers and food trucks, and just showed in a thousand little ways that she doesn't get it. She became noted for her smug smirk, and although I've been a pretty dedicated DeVos tracker for these years, I can't turn up a moment of humility or an admission that she had anything to learn; certainly, like her boss, she's not one to say, "I made a mistake." 

Perhaps DeVos is in part the victim of really bad timing. At this point, teachers and other actual education professionals have just about had it with well-heeled well-connected amateurs swooping in to say, "I don't really know anything about how your job works, but I am still going to tell you all about the many ways you suck," and she seemed like the ultimate unvarnished personification of that attitude. So maybe she's taking the heat for a lot of other people. 

She became identified with that smug smirk (less in evidence the longer she was in office) and a quality that looks, at least to me, like the classic Christian "I am in the world, but not of it" stance, but comes across as an aloof elitism. When she claimed her resignation was an act of protest, not cowardice, maybe educators should have given her the benefit of the doubt, but why would they--she has never given them that benefit, never, in fact , suggested that she had an ounce of doubt in her belief that public education should be dismantled and replaced with religious private schools. She has been clear--the folks who work in public education are the enemy.  

All of that can, I think, explain the vitriol directed at her. I'm not going to try to argue that it justified it--that takes us down a whole other dark philosophical road. But I will make one more observation. There is an obvious power differential between cabinet-level officials of the federal government and, say, classroom teachers. DeVos was in the leadership role; the job of setting a tone for her relationship with the education world was with her. She could have made critics, like me, eat our words by working hard to understand the landscape, learning about public schools, offering support, even just using language that built bridges. She could have displayed grace and humility. Instead she used the bully pulpit to punch down. Civility requires more than thinly veiled insults issued through clenched teeth. 

Yes, given her disdain for everything that she was set in charge of, DeVos did remarkably little real damage during her tenure; her ineffectiveness mitigated her worse instincts. And yes, Trump could have put Ivanka or Eric or his favorite pretzel vendor in charge of the department so maybe we didn't live through the worst possible scenario. But Betsy DeVos came to DC to break things with a smile on her face and self-righteousness in her heart, and if those things decided to push back against being broken, well, that seems only right and well-earned.

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