Friday, December 1, 2023

Is Cardona Getting Off Easy

Rick Hess is still bothered by the double standard he sees in Secretary of Education coverage, arguing that "Media Should Stop Giving Secretary of Education Cardona a Free Pass" noting that the non-coverage of Cardona's various fumbles stands in stark contrast to the constant pillorying to which Betsy DeVos was subjected.

The double-standard is striking. Just a few years ago, when Betsy DeVos was Secretary of Education, the smallest of missteps (real or imagined) yielded overwrought coverage at these same outlets.

Hess has argued before that DeVos got a raw deal, and I wrote a long response to that. Heck, I wrote a lot about DeVos, partly because I find her kind of fascinating--we're the same age, and for someone who has spent most of his life in churchworld, she is a recognizable type. DeVos was worked over by the mainstream media in ways that weren't particularly accurate or fair; in particular, the use of her as a comic punchline painting her as a dope were unfair. 

It did not help that she was uniformly terrible at articulating her ideas. 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 with you 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 his bus.

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 suggested that Miguel Cardona was 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. But as Secretary of Education, she was largely ineffective. 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. But she came to the job brandishing an axe and a flamethrower, and people inside the education bubble reacted accordingly.

Miguel Cardona came to DC brandishing nothing in particular. He entered the office with lukewarm reactions from all sides of education debates. Hess points out that DeVos was met with "blistering attacks before she'd said a word," but of course DeVos had said plenty already as a private citizen with a deep disrespect for the institution she was being put in charge of. Cardona came to office with an unspectacular career working in the trenches. 

Cardona's department has announced various initiatives that are mostly--well, I called one a "bold bowl of oatmeal," a program so lacking luster that I wrote about it in April and then again in November because in the interim I had pretty much forgotten all about it. When it came to a "major speech" about the teacher exodus, I had this to say:

But teachers are kind of up against it at the moment, and a nothingburger of "We're going to do some more supportive stuff kind of like we've been doing all along, only maybe with more money"-- It's nice that Cardona notices and makes some of the right noises, but the plan doesn't really rise to the level of specific, concrete actions that can help.

Oatmeal. Nothingburger. Bureaucratic argle bargle. Sticking to the neo-lib party line on testing. The occasional really bad tweet. And the hook that Hess hangs his piece on--Cardona's bungling of a Ronald Reagan sort-of-quote. And Hess has a further list of missteps that he wants publicly assigned to Cardona's feet.

While in office, Cardona has aggressively carried the water for the administration’s unconstitutional $500 billion student loan “forgiveness” scheme, approached that same scheme in a shambolic manner that the Government Accounting Office found rife with possibilities for fraud, been notably quiescent as $200 billion in federal pandemic aid failed to deliver any obvious benefits, mounted an assault on charter schools, mutely watched as chronic absenteeism has skyrocketed, and repeatedly stonewalled Congressional efforts to provide appropriate oversight.

I'm not sure Cardona has ever "aggressively" done anything. The "assault" on charter schools was simply putting some basic accountability rules in place (and I suspect that those rules have not actually impeded the flow of federal tax dollars to charter operators). The stonewall complaint is more about the loan forgiveness that conservatives really hate. Hess also nods elsewhere to low test scores for history and civics happening on Cardona's watch, and it's true that Cardona's response was more oatmeal

Has Cardona coverage been both less frequent and more gentle than what DeVos received? I have no doubts. Right-tilted media has tried to gin up some panic over his far left inclinations, but to little effect. And Cardona is never going to win that sector over-- he will always be either to ineffective or overstepping his boundaries. The far right has been clear that they want the entire department gone, so Cardona has to know that nothing he does will meet with their approval.

It may be that Cardona's secret super power is that he's a kind of boring bureaucratic functionary. I think it's more likely that the Department of Education in particular and education in general has never drawn much attention or interest from news organizations, where education coverage is both slim and also a stepping stone to a "real" beat. When education manages to penetrate the larger culture, it's for seemingly random inaccurate details. Betsy DeVos and her guns for bears are of a piece with jokes about Common Core math or, from decades earlier, jokes about New Math--neither entirely fair nor exactly accurate. People and media don't pay attention to education unless there's some special show going on to attract their attention (much to the frustration of many of us writing about education). DeVos provided a show. Cardona does not. DeVos was loud and threatening. Cardona is not.

Cardona is not a great Secretary of Education (I'm not sure there has ever been or will ever be one). But his bold oatmeal is never going to prompt the same sort of reaction as Betsy DeVos and her flamethrower. Nor do I think there's any reason to wish that he got as much unfair and inaccurate coverage as she did. I'd be happy to see him draw more scrutiny, and draw it for matters of substance rather than dopey quotes. I'd also be happy to see some of my hair grow back. But I'm not going to hold my breath for either. 


  1. Why do you think there will never be a great Secretary of Education? Is it the job itself that is hopelessly not doable?

    1. I think the requirements to get the job and to do the job are so wildly different that finding someone with both would be a sparkly-unicorn level fluke

  2. He’s doing exactly what Biden needs him to do- nothing definitive, bold or controversial- to defend and preserve public schools. Biden et co., like previous Dem’s are determined to try to gain support from swing voters whose fear is a second Trump admin but still believe the myth of “parental choice” in education

  3. I think the DOE is at this time a waste of tax $$ and just needs to go away. States need to take the responsibility of public education. Sending $$ to DC and hoping some of it comes back to them is a losing game.