Education Secretary Betsy DeVos resigned last night, citing Wednesday’s putsch at the Capitol, Trump’s incitement of violence, and her concern that “impressionable children are watching all of this.” Her announcement elicited gleeful reactions from leaders like Elizabeth Warren, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, AFT President Randi Weingarten, NEA President Becky Pringle and Diane Ravitch.
I totally get it. I’ve emitted my share of ink raging about DeVos’s recissions of Obama-era guidance that protects the civil rights of students with disabilities, students of color, and transgender students. I was gobsmacked when, during her surreal encounter with former Senator Al Franken during her confirmation hearing, she didn’t know the difference between student academic growth and proficiency. I strongly oppose her support for an unregulated charter sector in her home state of Michigan. It scared me when I heard her say,“our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.” It’s horrifying that she repealed a law that protects students from for-profit colleges that operate like Ponzi schemes.
But was she really, as Warren spat, “the worst Secretary of Education ever”?
Look, we have a pretty low bar right now for high-level positions in presidential administrations, whether it be Trump’s EPA Director Scott Pruitt who disdains climate science or Coronavirus Task Force member Scott Atlas, who disdains face masks. I’m thrilled that, from all appearances, President-elect Biden will raise the bar considerably. But, was there nothing redeemable about DeVos’s tenure?
I think there was. And I worry about our tendency during these riotous, polarized times to demonize people and ideas, to fail to differentiate between who and what is entirely hideous (yes, Trump) while cavalierly trivializing important complexities.
Not everything is reducible to a 280-character tweet. Yet that’s the trend and this seems to be especially true in politics. Legal scholar Richard A. Epstein writes, in a salute to Ronald Reagan, “leadership cannot thrive on nuance or uncertainty.” Barack Obama was mocked for appearing weak because he couldn’t reduce variegated ideas to soundbites; Michael Tomasky notes that having a president “who could parse the conservatism of Eliot versus Pound” was “not all that relevant to the job.”
But I’m not a politician, so consider this: Betsy DeVos was mightily flawed but not entirely a disaster (as the chattering class insists). Here are three examples of why we can say “good riddance,” as Elizabeth Warren did, but also find some common ground among all of us who want to improve America’s inequitable public schools.
Let’s start with this: DeVos was undeterred by school choice opponents who, in a move motivated by market share, would eliminate federal funding for public charter schools, a form of school choice widely supported by Black and Brown families. And according to the DNC platform, the Biden administration will condition charter school renewal on district approval.
That’s like asking Shoprite to approve a Whole Foods in the same strip mall.
And trust me on this: the families I meet with in Newark, Camden, and Trenton are desperate for exactly what the DNC platform seeks to erase. Biden’s nominee for Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona appears to understand this: “As a parent myself I want to make sure I have options for my children.”
DeVos thinks we should push more rigorously to open schools as student learning tanks during closures. In my home state of New Jersey, Newark and Jersey City, our two largest school districts, announced this week that they would stay shuttered at least through April, meaning that their students, already low-achieving, will have been out of school for over a year.
And guess what? Biden’s nominee for education secretary, Miguel Cardona, thinks we should open schools too. Cardona wrote in an op-ed published in the Connecticut Mirror,
We all know remote learning will never replace the classroom experience ... We also know that the health and safety of our students, staff, and their families must be the primary consideration when making decisions about school operations. The two are not mutually exclusive.
(Hmm. Sounds suspiciously like nuance, almost Obama-esque, but I don’t hear anyone complaining about that.)
Betsy DeVos understood the importance of gauging student learning, especially during a pandemic, despite virulent opposition from union leaders. Education Week reported this past September that she said annual summative assessments are “at the very core” of federal education law. “At a time when vulnerable students have been hurt the most by the pandemic,” she explained, “such tests are “among the most reliable tools available to help us understand how children are performing in school.”
How about Cardona? “State tests are the most accurate guideposts to our promise of equity for ALL,” he wrote in a memo last month.
See? It’s not so black and white. Was DeVos a great Education Secretary? Nope. Is it a wee bit suspicious that she chose to leave the Trump Administration 13 days before he’s ousted, yet was unmoved to do so when he claimed that racist anti-Semites in Charlottesville were “good?” Yup.
But is she deserving of such vitriol? I don’t think so.
But this is what was on (of course) Twitter today:
That’s Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer gloating about DeVos’ departure. I understand that she’s pleased, but as Whitmer smiles smugly in her DeVos-hating t-shirt, she doesn’t seem to recall that in Detroit, Michigan’s largest district, fewer than 12% of third-graders can read at grade-level, an important benchmark for high school graduation, avoidance of the school-to-prison pipeline and social mobility.
Here’s the thing: If Biden had completely pandered to union lobbyists and chosen an education secretary fixated on stymying school choice, shuttering schools until everyone is vaccinated, and waiving all standardized assessments, American students—especially those most at risk—would be far worse off than under DeVos.
I’ll cheer when the Biden administration reinstates Obama’s guidance. I’ll be thrilled to have an education secretary who doesn’t remind me of Leona Helmsley—the famous New York City hotelier dubbed the “Queen of Mean” who proclaimed, “only the little people pay taxes.” And I’m excited about Cardona’s apparent ability to appreciate that the complexities of schooling requires thoughtful, nuanced solutions.
So when Elizabeth Warren tweets that DeVos was “the worst Education Secretary ever,” I think about how she lied to 60 members of the pro-charter Powerful Parents Network by claiming her kids went to public school. I think about what would have happened if Biden listened to union lobbyists and picked from their short-list for the Cabinet position. And I think that, while I’m far more enthusiastic about Biden’s choice than Trump’s, Warren’s got it all wrong.