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Yesterday was the hearing for Betsy DeVos, Trump’s proposed Secretary of Education — or actually yesterday evening, because the hearing happened at 5 pm and was carefully timed and enforced to be as brief (and easy on DeVos) as possible. Each senator on the committee had only five minutes to ask questions, and there was only one round of questioning. Even though the hearing was designed to give DeVos the most leeway possible, it managed to be both a farce and a horror show, with DeVos’s answers to basic questions ranging from the avoidant to the nonsensical. This piece from Esquire is a good recap of what happened, and I’d recommend reading it. If you don’t, here’s the closing graf, which sums up some of the important takeaways here.
“Simply put, Betsy DeVos has been nominated to be Secretary of Education because she married into the Amway money and spread it around to enough Republican politicians to get them elected so that they would carry out DeVos family enterprise of turning public education over to private profiteers and turning the political commons into a theocratic yard sale open to the highest bidder. She and her family contributed substantial sums to 10 of the 12 Republicans who were sitting on the committee that was vetting her Tuesday night.”
DeVos has also been criticized for business conflicts of interest; the NYT describes her as “a billionaire with a complex web of investments, including in companies that stand to win or lose from federal education policy,” and notes that she “was the first nominee of President-elect Donald J. Trump to have a Senate hearing without completing an ethics review on how she planned to avoid conflicts of interest.”
This isn’t unique to DeVos; the majority of the Trump team’s picks for major cabinet positions — like Steve Mnuchin, who worked at Goldman Sachs and has helped bankroll Avatar but never worked in government; or Rex Tillerson, whose experience as an oil executive is supposed to somehow translate to a skill set as Secretary of State — have two things in common: a lot of money and little to no experience. Many of them, like Scott Pruitt for the EPA or Rick Perry for the Department of Energy, were either previously unaware of or openly opposed the existence of the departments they have been nominated for.
Taking an extremely zoomed-out view of the situation, and trying not to indulge in excessive speculation, at least two things seem clear. First, the construction and staffing of the federal government is at this point determined entirely by what Trump’s team thinks is profitable for them, not what’s best for the sustained future of the nation. (This is why you have perhaps heard the word “kleptocracy” thrown around.) Second, the Trump team has no intention of these positions or offices they’re staffing even being functional, let alone effectively fulfilling their traditional roles. The first time you nominate someone with no experience and who has been historically hostile to the department they’re supposed to serve, hey, maaaaaybe there was a misunderstanding. The next dozen times it happens, probably not.
It’s reasonable to guess that regardless of the intended function of the roles these cabinet picks take on, the aim they will actually pursue is to make sure there are no roadblocks (like EPA regulations, banking regulations, tax code changes, etc) that will hinder profitability for themselves, their friends, and Trump’s team; where possible, they will try to turn these departments into moneymaking schemes (like freeing up national public land for sale — right now, public land is “the government’s second largest source of income after taxes,” but that doesn’t make money for members of government personally, and if they sell it, it can!).
So how does this work for Betsy DeVos and education in the US? How much can DeVos really get away with doing? To what degree can public education be changed, and what would America look like if that happened?
The answer to that is a pretty unanimous one from all corners: if you want to see what DeVos will do to American education, look at what she did in Michigan. The Detroit Free Press has an op/ed by Stephen Henderson, their editorial page editor, that describes a nightmarish Frankensteining of “free market” ideology and public education in the state. The idea, seemingly, is that if all families have perfect school choice, able to decide with total freedom where they attend, education quality will be forced to rise all on its own. Competency and educational standards, it is imagined, will just increase effortlessly as schools compete for students and reputation, regardless of resources or the level of investment of their administrators. This is, of course, not how things have gone. At the Detroit Free Press, Henderson writes:
Largely as a result of the DeVos’ lobbying, Michigan tolerates more low-performing charter schools than just about any other state. And it lacks any effective mechanism for shutting down, or even improving, failing charters. We’re a laughingstock in national education circles, and a pariah among reputable charter school operators, who have not opened schools in Detroit because of the wild West nature of the educational landscape here. In Michigan, just about anyone can open a charter school if they can raise the money. That’s not so in most other states, where proven track records are required. In other states, poor performers are subject to improvement efforts, or sometimes closed. By contrast, once a school opens in Michigan, it’s free to operate for as long as it wants, and is seldom held accountable by state officials for its performance. Authorizers, often universities, oversee operation according to whatever loose standards they choose. And in Michigan, you can operate a charter for profit, so even schools that fail academically are worth keeping open because they can make money. Michigan leads the nation in the number of schools operated for profit, while other states have moved to curb the expansion of for-profit charters, or banned them outright.
If the structure Henderson describes to you sounds familiar, it may be in part because it recalls Trump University itself, the fraudulent Trump-branded university that people paid thousands to “attend” and got nothing in return. Indeed, during the five minutes she was allotted in DeVos’s hearing, Elizabeth Warren asked what DeVos would do to prevent fraud and abuse from for-profit universities; DeVos was seemingly unaware that “there is actually a group of rules already on the books, the gainful employment regulations. ‘All you have to do is enforce them,’ Warren said.” DeVos then refused to commit to enforcing them.
In a way, DeVos’s hearing and potential confirmation aren’t that remarkable, or at least not in our rapidly devolving new normal. But they do stand out in a few ways — at least for me, who used to teach at a state university in Michigan and had students who were baffled by the concept of revising an essay, because they had been given an automatic A with no comments on anything they ever handed in by teachers who didn’t have the time or wherewithal to grade. But I think also for most Americans, even if they didn’t personally attend public school, it’s a mainstay of American culture. We’re accustomed to our tax dollars supporting it, and “good schools” are a point of pride for neighborhoods that can boast them. Unlike other institutions, ideals or services — like environmental conservation or reproductive healthcare — Americans generally agree that education as a concept is a net positive and should exist.
The idea that we may see someone in this role who doesn’t believe that public education should be continued as a national institution is horrifying, and puts the lie to any claims the GOP has ever made about wanting the best for children. And the fact that a nation that spent years deriding and abandoning Detroit, writing it off as a failure, would so willingly turn around and hire one of the people who worked hardest to harm the people there is absurd and outrageous.
Is it possible that DeVos won’t be confirmed? Maybe! The pushback against her from senators like Al Franken, Tim Kaine and Elizabeth Warren was strong. But the fact that her hearing was allowed to go forward without an ethics review, and the fact that so far Democrats haven’t seemed to be able to organize internally to form a strong opposition to any particular act of the new administration, doesn’t bode all that well.