The Betsy DeVos Dilemma: 14 March 2018

After the election of Donald Trump, I witnessed a response on social media I did not anticipate, but have since committed to honor when I comment on Trump’s administration: Black scholars and journalists contested claims that Trump is somehow uniquely awful and asserted their own voices about the historical and lingering consequences of white privilege in their lives.

Not always as harsh as this, but these perspectives were expressing a “Welcome to our world” response to hand wringing about Trump and his policies, rhetoric, and administration.

This racialized awareness has tempered my own urge to identify Trump as uniquely awful; instead, while I do argue he is an extreme and crass political leader, I recognize that many of the policies and the ideology he courts and expresses are often not distinct from mainstream Republican practices for decades (see Newt Gingrich).

When Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos appeared on 60 Minutes [1], then, and the media as well as public response was overwhelmingly negative, I checked myself and offered a measured argument that DeVos is, like Trump, crass and cartoonish, but she fits into the twenty-first century series of SOEs from Paige and Spellings through Duncan and King.

That sparked pushback as follows:

Since both Watters and Perry are informed voices I respect, I was then trapped between what I believed was a credible argument and their challenges—even as I found support for my stance among others who I also greatly respect:

So DeVos is a subset of the larger Trump problem that confronts us with people who have attained excessive power mostly because of their ill-got wealth and not because of their expertise or credibility.

DeVos, I maintain, represents an unmasking, however, of what has been happening with the SOE post for nearly 20 years since each SOE throughout the  administrations of W. Bush, Obama, and now Trump has been supremely unqualified and nearly uniform in market-based and flawed commitments driven by ideology and not credible educational research.

From NCLB’s facade of “scientifically-based” to Arne Duncan’s “Civil Rights issue of our time,” education policy at the federal level has been mostly, as I noted about Obama and Duncan, an Orwellian adventure in rhetoric.

This leads to Watter’s concern about DeVos being unlike, for example, John King, who did lend a voice to one aspect of the Obama administration that I believe deserves credit—the elevating of the Office of Civil Rights and shining an authoritative light on racist disciplinary policies in schools.

I remain deeply skeptical of King, who as I note in a Tweet above built his reputation in a “no excuses” charter school that practiced and perpetuated inequitable discipline, and have trouble separating King from Duncan in terms of both being mostly rhetoric to provide a veneer for policies that often produced outcomes opposite of that rhetoric.

The dilemma becomes how to accurately express outrage with DeVos, and Trump, while maintaining our awareness that while they are more overt, even cartoonish, they both fit well within an existing political structure—both Democratic and Republican—that fails to acknowledge race privilege and perpetuates race privilege.

In other words, to suddenly be outraged by DeVos is to admit you have not been rightfully sensitive to how the SOE post has been a train wreck for at least two decades; to suddenly be outraged by Trump is to admit you have not been rightfully sensitive to how the US has functioned since it inception.

That said, we must not become fatalistic, must not allow DeVos and Trump a pass since their entire lives have been passes facilitated by wealth and privilege.

And we must not allow DeVos and Trump to become the singular targets of change; in other words, replacing DeVos or Trump is a goal, but not an end goal because they are markers for larger problems, for larger norms that must be confronted and eradicated.

Yes, DeVos in all her Amway, faux-Christian, Libertarian awfulness is to be rejected and then replaced. And, yes, we certainly can identify ways in which she is exceptionally awful even against a crop of awful SOE appointees. In fact, I struggle to view DeVos as worse than Spellings since Spellings, like Duncan, has social capital and a veneer of decency that makes her even more dangerous, I think.

Despite her incompetence as SOE, Spellings has become president of UNC.

DeVos was wreaking havoc for years as a billionaire activist with almost no one outside Michigan taking notice [2], and she will likely slink right back to that sort of life once she eventually fades from her political perch.

All of this highlights the dilemma of institutionalized incompetence that confronts us in the persons of DeVos and Trump, but not only because of their personal flaws.

Today is March 14, 2018, a national day of protest by the youth of America.

The adults who elected Donald Trump, facilitated DeVos, are shouting that we in the US must not listen to children and teens.

Adults who elected Trump are afraid children and teens aren’t credible, aren’t qualified.

Watch the DeVos interview; watch any clip of Trump.

Then watch a clip of some of the teens from Parkland, Florida.

The choice is quite obvious, and no dilemma at all.


[2] Evidence-based thread on DeVos:

See Also

Betsy DeVos Wants to Reverse Efforts to Bring Some Degree of Racial Justice to School Discipline

DeVos and the limits of the education reform movement

Betsy DeVos Calls “60 Minutes” a Waste of a Half Hour

The Worst Government Possible, on Purpose

CURMUDGUCATION: DeVos: Made Up of Individuals