Betsy DeVos: Mediocrity, Uninterrupted

A nomination that says more about the country than about personal incompetence.
Credit: Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Credit: Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Last week, a few friends asked me about Betsy DeVos. I was flattered.

But my opinion of DeVos is quite the opposite. Here are my main problems with what she will potentially symbolize about American education:

1. She has no experience as a school teacher

2. She’s more concerned about grizzly bears than school safety

3. And she doesn’t understand basic educational terminology

4. She doesn’t understand IDEA, a landmark piece of legislation for students with disabilities

5. And finally, she’s not, in my eyes, fit for political office

At best, I’m troubled by DeVos’ lack of experience as a teacher. Her confirmation would add to the message America continually sends about this: politicians should be in charge of education policy, regardless of what they know about education. This propels an American tradition of mediocrity. Her credentials are underwhelming, and she has no degree in education. But in America, that still makes her an acceptable candidate tasked with overseeing the public school system.

Education is one of the few careers that’s defined by this mediocrity of credentials. Ironically, it’s most obvious in those who govern education, in the first place. America insists on high-quality education, and the high-quality legislation that requires, but where’s that quality in a person who never studied education?

Of the little educational merit she has, part of it comes from her vociferous insistence on charter schools. You’ve heard this debate in relation to vouchers and school choice. Some charter schools are backed by quality. Others aren’t. Initially, they were developed as magnet schools placed in neighborhoods with or around low-achieving public schools. Here, they temporarily fixed problems of staffing and underfunded classrooms. But an entire system predicated on them doesn’t go far, even with vouchers, because it fundamentally neglects the American notion of free, public education. Public schools deserve most of our legislative attention and criticism because they affect a majority of our students.

There are better ways to address the problems charters raised and answered. One way is to adequately fund the thousands of public schools a majority of our students attend. Placing public schools in competition with charter schools only factions the system even further. What’s more, an entire charter system won’t work because it isn’t sustainable. At best, its vision for the future is temporary and particular. America needs a strong universal response for the future; building up from charters to public schools isn’t the answer, either.

DeVos also doesn’t understand the fundamentals of school safety. Speaking about a school in Wyoming, she claimed, “I would imagine there is probably a gun in a school to protect from potential grizzlies.” Already, the comedy America is writing about itself, its education system, and the politicians who represent it is growing. Mediocrity is suddenly the standard, not the outlier. The gun reform America needs begins with consensus, among individuals, politicians, and institutions about the problem. Proffering nonsense about bears in and around schools is no such fix.

On the academic side of policy, her stance is notably skeletal. I’d cite her insistence on bringing God into the classroom as the most troubling representation of what she believes schools should do.

Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.

Don’t just dismiss me as a liberal. If we’re going to keep insisting on quality education to define a quality future, we need to seriously consider who’s in power, and what they’re trying to do. Advancing “God’s kingdom” is fine and good in private schools, where agendas are set by an increasingly segmented community, but this message has no place in public institutions, writ large.

She continues:

As we look at many communities in our country, the church has been displaced by the public school as the center for activity…[I]t is certainly our hope that more and more churches will get more and more active and engaged in education.

I have no problem with religious worship, but it isn’t part of the public school model. Using a rhetoric of “displacing” against the church isn’t the answer, either. I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with having a public school “as the center for activity.” Aren’t we always calling for better schools, better community engagement, and better educations as a result of this interrelationship? If we’re truly forging a productive, sustainable future, we should insist in the separation of church and state. I’m troubled to need to make that argument in 2017.

When asked about growth versus proficiency, DeVos displayed her best mediocrity, uninterrupted.

I think, if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would correlate it to competency and mastery, so each student is measured according to the advancements they are making in each subject area.

First, this debate isn’t high-flung pedagogy. It’s not an obscure idea. Most education students learn about it on day one of their undergraduate careers. And it’s certainly not jargon, since most industries evaluate employees based on one or the other. Even still, a basic understanding of SAT vocabulary should’ve helped her. DeVos’ lack of knowledge is a glimmer into the future of the country. The implications of her candidacy extend past one debate, at one congressional hearing. In general, she embodies how easy it’s become to lampoon America’s career politicians because of their unwavering, inexcusable, unapologetic mediocrity.

When DeVos worries whether she’s “understanding [the] question correctly,” she isn’t stumbling over her words. She’s not lost. She’s revealing, instead, a lack of knowledge about the system she’s about to oversee and legislate. Worse, to symbolize.

What’s left is her misunderstanding of IDEA, one of the most important pieces of education policy as I see it.

(IDEA) is a law ensuring services to children with disabilities throughout the nation. IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities.

When pressed, “Should all schools that receive taxpayer funding be required to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?” DeVos responded, “I think that is a matter better left to the states.”

This moment crystalizes the whole of her incompetence — maybe you could excuse her federal and state law blunder, but can you excuse someone who blatantly disregards students with disabilities? Insisting that states decide whether to meet the requirements of IDEA isn’t only insane. It’s borderline criminal. Corporal punishment is still legal in 19 states; how would they, among others, legislate IDEA given their precedence for bad policy? DeVos’ stance isn’t the one we need advocating for students with disabilities, all of whom deserve a high-quality education.

My critics will declaim the entire DeVos ordeal as politics. Politics is money, and money plus power can corrupt. What’s so different this time around? Aside from the Trump presidency, the message America is sending to the world is that we’re comfortable pushing for mediocrity through DeVos’ nomination, and potential confirmation. We’ve sent that message for too long now, and we’ve been accurately criticized for it. Confirming DeVos doesn’t only add to it. It also normalizes a standard of mediocrity we should be fighting against, not pushing for.

I end with the most troubling aspect of DeVos as a person. She and her family have donated some $7 million to groups such as Focus on the Family and Traditional Values Coalition, both of which support gay conversion therapy. Simply, I can’t stand by her because of this donation. Not only is this “therapy” fiercely anti-American, but it’s also criminal to the message America prides of being welcoming, progressive, and empowering. What message are we sending when our highest officials support this nonsense? Our students will live through the implications of this, but they needn’t do so quietly.

It’s evident DeVos’ personal life has saturated her political one. This problem will affect the millions of students we teach every year. But more, it will affect a distinctly American consciousness of mediocrity lurking uninterrupted now for too long. It’s time to interrupt it.

George Goga is an English major training to teach literature. He writes on fashion, education, literature, and the curiosity that sprouts when the three are combined.

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