The Betsy DeVos Confirmation Debacle
In the middle of last week, as U.S. senators were being swamped by calls from constituents opposed to the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary—as critics cited her unfamiliarity with the public-school system, in which she has never worked; raised questions about potential conflicts of interest, given her status as a billionaire with a wide range of investments; and challenged her ideological commitment to "school choice" above all other principles—the Washington Post ran a story with the headline "DeVos Questionnaire Appears to Include Passages From Uncited Sources."
The story noted that, in the written responses DeVos had supplied to questions issued by Senator Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee that oversees education, there were passages and phrases that appeared to have been lifted wholesale from documents found online. Among the examples given was DeVos's response to a question about how she envisaged the Education Department responding to the bullying of L.G.B.T. students. "Every child deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment where they can learn, thrive and grow," DeVos's answer read. The Post report pointed out that the language chosen was "almost identical" to that used by Vanita Gupta, who was heading the civil-rights division of the Justice Department when it sued the state of North Carolina on behalf of transgender students, and who was quoted in a press release last spring as saying, "Every child deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment that allows them to thrive and grow."
Correctly, the Post stopped short of alleging plagiarism, the charge that, last month, sank Monica Crowley's appointment to a position on the National Security Council, and that embarrassed Melania Trump after her speech at the Republican National Convention. The White House responded to the Post story with the hot-blooded vigor we have come to expect from Sean Spicer's office, calling it "character assassination." DeVos's resort to canned answers—the fruits of a quick Google search on the part of an aide, perhaps, or the expression of a reflexive, rote tendency of mind—might not earn her good grades in a high-school social-studies class. But were it a disqualification from public office to repeat bland platitudes about the abstract right of children to thrive—a subject of bipartisan consensus if ever there was one—there might be no government at all.
Still, the Post story seemed to underscore a critique of DeVos that had been levelled before, most devastatingly in her appearance before the Senate committee, in mid-January: that she appeared woefully unprepared to head a department that plays a role in overseeing the education of fifty million schoolchildren, and that she seemed to be alarmingly ignorant of some of the fundamental laws underpinning children's rights to education. When asked by Senator Al Franken about whether student test scores should be used to measure proficiency or growth, she did not appear to be familiar with the debate, much discussed in educational circles, over that distinction. When asked by Senator Elizabeth Warren what steps she would take to insure that for-profit universities did not bilk their students—institutions like Trump University, the so-called seat of learning to whose students President Trump recently agreed to pay twenty-five million dollars in settlements—DeVos insisted mildly that she would be "vigilant," without saying much about what form that vigilance would take.
Even when pressed by Senator Tim Kaine, DeVos would not affirm a commitment to "equal accountability" for all schools that receive taxpayer funds. Under questioning by Senator Maggie Hassan, DeVos revealed her sketchy understanding of the terms of the Individuals with Disabilities Act, which guarantees public-education services to students with special needs or physical disabilities. Most notoriously, and most risibly, she defended the presence of guns in schools by citing rural schools' need to have firearms to defend against "potential grizzlies." While ursine assaults on American institutions are not unknown—the Russian hackers who broke into the D.N.C.'s servers were, after all, known as Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear—the number of grizzly-related incidents in American schools is, as commentators were quick to point out, zero. Meanwhile, the tally of school shootings continues to mount; the most recent, non-fatal, incident took place when one high-school student shot a classmate in Columbus, Ohio, on January 20th, Inauguration Day.
By the end of last week, two moderate Republican senators, Susan Collins, of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, had declared their intention to break ranks with their Party, and to vote against DeVos's confirmation. Collins cited DeVos's "lack of familiarity" with federal education law, while Murkowski suggested that DeVos, who has been a generous donor to charter-school groups and school-voucher advocates, might be so enamored of the right-wing school-reform movement, and so persuaded by its claim that public education is "broken," that she had overlooked the many successes that can be found in traditional public schools, which, after all, serve the vast majority of students in the system.
One more vote would have scuppered DeVos's nomination, and in the days running up to the final decision voters lobbied their senators with phone calls, letters, e-mails, and Twitter pleas. Last night, candlelight vigils were held outside school buildings, while Democrats staged an all-night session in which Senators Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, and others voiced their objections to DeVos's ideology, and to the precipitate process of her confirmation. They did so in vain; DeVos was confirmed as Education Secretary early on Tuesday afternoon, with a tie-breaking vote cast by Mike Pence, the Vice-President.
She will take up her new role, as Senator Murray noted in her remarks to the Senate last night, as the most embattled and divisive head the agency has ever known. She does so not only because she seems poorly schooled in mainstream educational issues, and not just because of the ethical challenges presented by the entanglement of her business interests and her duties as a public servant. Like the President who appointed her, DeVos has a lucky billionaire's confidence in her own best judgment, and an abiding scorn for the institutions she will now head. She now serves at that President's pleasure. It will be up to the electorate to determine whether those senators who supported her—who voted for her despite the ready evidence of her lack of preparedness and inadequacy to the role—will be subject to the ultimate civics lessons: a challenge at the ballot box next time around.