Kalman Hettleman: A Tiny Cheer for DeVos? Let’s Root for a New Educator in Chief

Betsy DeVos
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies before a U.S. Senate subcommittee. Getty Images photo by Zach Gibson.

Let’s be grateful for U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. No kidding. Sure, many think she has been President Trump’s worst cabinet appointment, which is quite a feat, given competition like Attorney General Bill Barr and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. And her ill repute is well-deserved.

It began at her infamous confirmation hearing when she displayed general cluelessness on almost all K-12 issues, especially federal law on students with disabilities, and justified guns in schools based on the presence of grizzly bears in Wyoming.

Despite the Republican majority in the Senate, she became the first cabinet nominee in U.S. history to require a tiebreaking confirmation vote by the vice president.

Kalman Hettleman

Her record in office has been just as inept. She has been almost totally consumed with a messianic zeal for school choice. In her narrow view, parents should be able to choose and receive government subsidies for whatever school they want for their children.

Charters, vouchers, tax credits and direct public funding for religious and private schools have been pushed relentlessly. Other approaches to reform have been almost totally ignored.

Thankfully, she has flunked her self-assignment. Sometimes even Republicans have balked at her preoccupation with cutting or eliminating federal education programs and redirecting the funds for choice purposes. Most recently, two federal judges halter her attempts to divert emergency coronavirus relief from public schools to private schools.

Given this report card, why should she get even one-tenth of one cheer rather than a zero? Because almost any other secretary of Education in a Trump regime would have had more sense and success. As New York Times columnist Gail Collins puts it, she was “too incompetent to be a major threat.”

Her extremism was unconcealed. Her goals were less about improving public schools and more about putting them out of business altogether. At an education meeting, DeVos said, “Government really sucks.” Religious and other private schools should be substitute school systems.

She even managed to set back the cause of charter schools, which commanded more bipartisan support before she took office. A leading conservative proponent of charter schools urged her to resign because “she’s so unpopular that she’s making it harder for education reformers at the state and local level.”

Still, if Trump is re-elected, and if, as appears probable, she does not serve a second term, we may miss her ineptitude. An emboldened Trump and a less bumbling secretary could wreak even more damage at a time when our nation’s historic commitment to public schools has never been more imperiled.

The pandemic has exposed and worsened deep-rooted inequities that particularly victimize students who are poor and of color. Public school enrollment has been declining for many years, and now options – not just private schools but virtual instruction, learning pods and home-schooling – are gaining popularity. A second Trump administration could go a long way toward achieving the long-sought conservative goal of ending public education as our nation has known it.

As revealed in the recent best-selling book “How Democracies Die” by Daniel Ziblatt and Stephen Levitsky, the further demise of public education would be another big nail in the coffin. Democracy can’t survive without equitable and excellent public schools that foster an educated, economically productive and socially cohesive citizenry.

Could Joe Biden, if our next educator in chief, come to the rescue?

Public education has never been one of his signature issues. And no easy fixes are possible. But he is deeply committed to public schools and is likely to pick a secretary of education who will bridge differences between the Bernie Sanders wing of education progressives and his own moderate instincts.

A model is the centrist education reform course taken by the Obama-Biden administration: large increases in federal aid, tied to high accountability standards for public schools with some support for charter schools. And the ever-emotional Joe will be guided by his wife Jill, who is a teacher, as was his late deceased wife.

Betsy DeVos won’t be missed by those who believe in mending not ending our public schools. But let’s send her off with a cheer for her underachievement. She was not just awful on the job but awfully ineffective.

— KALMAN R. HETTLEMAN

The writer is a member of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education – the Kirwan Commission — a former Baltimore City School Board member, a former deputy mayor of Baltimore and a former Maryland secretary of human resources.