On Betsy DeVos

A general ideology I hold about electoral politics is that elected officials should be able to appoint their own staff. Not necessarily the staff that the public wants, but the staff with whom these elected officials feel they can work best. Barring any illegality in these decisions, this idea seems to be pretty reasonable. Elections have outcomes, and that should be recognized. 

Whether the elected official is liberal or conservative, republican or democrat, I feel they should normally be afforded this concession. This is why I didn’t mind when in 2009 Harry Reid decided to eliminate the filibuster on cabinet appointments in order to get President Obama’s nominations through. It’s also why I have felt reluctant to speak critically about the confirmations of many of Donald Trump’s appointments. 

However, for Betsy DeVos I can no longer hold fast to that rule. Because while I feel that appointments of agency leaders should be a concession handed to a new administration it is at the same time wise for that administration to select people who will best serve the public interest. It’s advantageous for political purposes and for effectively carrying out new policy. A competent cabinet appointee will not only better help the new administration accomplish it’s goals, they will also instill a sense of trust in the public which is watching each of these appointments and judging how their actions will help or hurt friends and family. 

Although I disagree with most of Trump’s appointments, I can at least understand they mostly have at least a level of competency. Jeff Sessions has worked in a courtroom. Tom Price has worked in a hospital. Rex Tillerson has been in board rooms and done negotiations. However, Betsy DeVos is an entirely different entity. 

If we simply subjected DeVos to the competency tests to which we have subjected former nominees, it becomes painfully clear that DeVos is historically unqualified. DeVos has no experience relating to public schools. She’s never attended a public school. She never taught in a public school. She has never been an administrator at a public school. She hasn’t even enrolled her children in a public school. In fact, she has expressed open contempt for the entire concept of a public education system. Therefore, on her basic merits, DeVos would not even be qualified to work in a public school, let alone run the Department of Education.

The larger problem, however, is that the role of the Department of Education is not to directly run the public schools. That job, wisely, is left up to the very competent professionals in the local and state school systems. The role of the Department of Education is to, instead, enact and enforce federal education policies and to ensure compliance from the state and local authorities. This system creates a nice balancing act, where the professionals closer to the actual students are in charge of directly effecting their classroom experience, while federal policies create a broad blanket of equality—attempting to make sure that no student, regardless of location, is treated differently. Betsy DeVos seems to understand none of this. It is because of this decentralized educational system, the Department of Education is almost always more focused on policy than they are classroom details, and the policy aspects of the job are where DeVos is the most uniquely unqualified.

An exchange between DeVos and Senator Al Franken during her confirmation hearing has become infamous because it showcases this sharp disconnect between her experience, and the experience needed to run an organization which is mainly focused on understanding the challenges of American education, and implementing broad policies to address them. Sen. Franken proposes to her a very simple question that almost anyone entrenched in education policy—as we would expect the new head of the Department of Education to be—would understand. Sen. Franken asks for her thoughts on the idea of measuring students on the merits of growth versus measuring them on proficiency. In education, growth is the system where by a student is evaluated on how well they are progressing on a scale and measuring their own personal progress. Proficiency is the system where students are measured against some kind of benchmark, such as standardized tests. This debate gets at the very heart of what the Department of Justice is trying to achieve—customizing the learning experience to equalize it for all students. Knowing how students best learn is the first step in knowing how to best teach them, which would be in the purview of federal policy. Policy that DeVos would be implementing. However, DeVos seemingly had absolutely no idea what Sen. Franken was talking about, so much so that the Senator had to explain the concept to her.

DeVos also doesn’t seem to have any concept of the separation of powers created by the Department of Education’s policy focus. During her confirmation hearing, she was asked several questions about the implementation of federal education policies. The most well known from her questioning was her response to a question regarding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—a law which protects the equal rights of students with disabilities. Again, she appeared completely ignorant of the law and its implications, and that was only one of the specific policies about which she was asked. Almost to a tee, whenever she was asked about a policy in the purview of the Education Department, and how she would implement it, she would answer some variation of, "I will work with states and local districts.” This appeal to federalism is a stock conservative answer which one would expect to come from any junior Republican congressman, but it is not the answer which would be given even by a typical conservative nominee for the Department of Education. It shows a complete lack of understanding about the basic job of the Department. 

The Department’s own mission statement spells this out: 

"Our mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access."

Many of the policies that the Department of Education enacts are expressly purposed with working above the local and state districts, not with them. You can not, for instance, go school to school working with each district deciding how they think they should implement IDEA. No, the Department of Education goes from school to school making sure that each of them are implementing IDEA in the exact same way.

DeVos is a uniquely unqualified cabinet member in a group of cabinet members with which the public has many hesitations. I understand that the Trump administration would pick conservatives to head up all of it’s departments. I understand that that the Trump administration would probably pick someone to head the Department of Education who wants to implement a school voucher system—perhaps they would even be a conservative who had worked their way into the hearts and minds of many Republicans in DC. But that doesn’t mean Betsy DeVos had to be the one that the administration picked. There are plenty of conservatives who work in education policy. There are plenty of conservatives who have worked in schools. There are plenty of conservatives who are leagues more knowledgeable about the work of the department than DeVos, and there are plenty of conservatives who would have caused a much less heated confirmation battle. DeVos does not know what the Department she is stepping in to run does, and even worse, it seems she simply doesn’t care. All of that is harmful—not just harmful to the public’s perception of Washington, not just harmful to federal policy, not just harmful to the Department itself, but harmful to children of all Americans who could miss out on having a competent and equal education. 

DeVos’ confirmation vote tally reveals the deep controversy of her taking this job—a 50-50 split.  Every single Democrat and two Republicans voted against her nomination, with Vice President Mike Pence—serving as president pro tempore of the Senate—having to cast the deciding vote. This event has never happened in this history of this country, and it didn’t need to happen. If the Trump administration had decided to nominate someone qualified to this position they would have scored both political points, and done better by the people in the nation. 

Zachary Sizemore is the Managing Editor of Sojourn Review. You can follow him on Twitter here.