Betsy DeVos: Weak, Calculating, or Undecided?

Jefferson Middle School Academy
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos listens before addressing Education Department staff, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, at the Education Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos listens before addressing Education Department staff, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017, at the Education Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

Betsy DeVos has had a tough few weeks. Since she was confirmed as US Secretary of Education — a confirmation that came down to a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence — she has managed to draw the ire of a wide range of people. She angered secondary school teachers when she said that teachers at a DC middle school are operating in “receive mode,” college professors when she accused them of telling students what to think in her address at CPAC, conservatives when she expressed support for the rights of transgender students, and liberals when she backed down on said support. The anger against her is such that she even has the dubious honor of being the first Cabinet member since the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (which stopped being a Cabinet position in 2009) to receive protection from the US Marshals Service — presumably as a result of an attempt by protesters to block her entry into the DC middle school.

It’s hard to know what people’s motivations are, but it is easy to analyze what they say and what they do, and Betsy DeVos seems to be making a habit of speaking out of both sides of her mouth, sometimes in the same sentence. Perhaps she just doesn’t want to be hated. Perhaps she thinks that attempting to appear open-minded is the smart political move. Or perhaps she hasn’t quite decided — or doesn’t know enough to decide — what it is she believes. Whatever the reason, the mixed messages she’s sending make her seem some combination of untrustworthy, weak-willed, and unknowledgeable — none of which are desirable qualities in a Cabinet member.

Let’s consider a few examples.

After her visit to DC’s Jefferson Middle School Academy on February 10, DeVos released a statement referencing the “tremendous team of administrators, teachers and students” she had met and calling the school “a great example of the successful collaborative innovations occurring within the DC Public Schools system.” Six days later, in an interview with the conservative website Townhall, she said the following:

I visited a school on Friday and met with some wonderful, genuine, sincere teachers who pour their heart and soul into their classrooms and their students and our conversation was not long enough to draw out of them what is limiting them from being even more success from what they are currently. But I can tell the attitude is more of a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child. You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.

On the one hand, she is calling the teachers wonderful, genuine and sincere; on the other — in the very next sentence — she says they seem to be in “receive mode,” passively waiting to receive instruction on what and how to teach.

Her point, presumably, is that teachers are restricted by guidelines and mandates in what they are allowed to teach and the methods they are allowed to use, and that they would be able to teach more creatively if there were fewer such guidelines and mandates. But to a teacher who puts in long hours writing lesson plans, talking to students, and coming up with fun and rigorous ways to teach material to students at vastly different levels, a comment like that seems to negate everything they work so hard to do.

The school took to Twitter to fire back at her, detailing the achievements and good teaching practices of the teachers whose classrooms DeVos had visited.

DeVos replied with several tweets of her own in which she attempted to walk back her previous statement:

So it seems that she wants to both stick to the idea that schools are failing because there is too much oversight by the federal government and at the same time ingratiate herself with the teachers at Jefferson (and by extension teachers everywhere). The teachers themselves are great, her argument seems to go, but they are hampered by the dictates of the federal government, and could be so much greater if they only had more freedom.

But she can’t have it both ways. Saying that teachers are doing great work but that the entire system still needs to change implies that the system isn’t actually working at all — which of course implies that the teachers aren’t doing such great work.

“Bathroom Bill”

DeVos, to the surprise of many on both sides of the aisle, opposed Trump’s rescission of Obama’s guidelines saying that transgender students should be able to use whichever bathroom they choose. DeVos initially refused to sign off on the order, reportedly expressing concern for the safety of transgender students. However, she didn’t hold out for long: Attorney General Jeff Sessions brought the matter before Trump, who met with DeVos and convinced her to sign off on it.

Of course, she might well have been out of a job if she had refused to consent to the order, which would have led to her being replaced by someone who likely would not even pay lip service to protections for transgender students. Perhaps that fact played a role in her decision to back down. But even so, for those who care about the welfare of transgender students, it is not exactly heartening to see the education secretary give up on her students so easily. As Rebecca Mead argues in the New Yorker, “If DeVos really has concerns about the safety of transgender kids, her capitulation to Sessions and Trump is all the more reprehensible.”

DeVos did publicly express her displeasure with the order after the fact, firing off several tweets about her commitment to the safety of all students. She even called out LGBTQ students specifically:

DeVos also issued an official statement about the new guidance after the order was signed in which she professes her commitment to ensuring the welfare of all students, including LGBTQ students. In the first paragraph, she insists that the federal government has an obligation to protect and support all students:

We have a responsibility to protect every student in America and ensure that they have the freedom to learn and thrive in a safe and trusted environment. This is not merely a federal mandate, but a moral obligation no individual, school, district or state can abdicate. At my direction, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights remains committed to investigating all claims of discrimination, bullying and harassment against those who are most vulnerable in our schools.

These are encouraging words for those invested in the welfare of LGBTQ students and students in general. However, just two paragraphs down comes the following line: “This is an issue best solved at the state and local level. Schools, communities, and families can find — and in many cases have found — solutions that protect all students.”

So, again, DeVos is trying to have it both ways. In the course of one 237-word statement, she is saying two things that are fundamentally at odds: the federal government has a responsibility to protect all students, but the matter of protecting students is best handled at the state and local level.

When asked to comment on the order several days later at the Conservative Political Action Conference, DeVos said the following:

This issue was a very huge example of the Obama administration’s overreach, to suggest a one-size-fits-all federal government approach — top-down approach — to issues that are best dealt with and solved at a personal level and a local level. And I have made clear from the moment I’ve been in this job that it’s our job to protect students and to do that to the fullest extent that we can, and also to provide students, parents, and teachers with more flexibility around how education is delivered and how education is experienced and to protect and preserve personal freedoms.

So which is it? Does she believe all students — including LGBTQ students — should be protected at a federal level? Or does she believe that students should have no federal protections, instead leaving such things to state and local governments?

Students with Disabilities

DeVos has also been attempting to have it both ways when discussing the ideal role (or lack thereof) of the federal government in protecting the rights of students with disabilities. In DeVos’s interview with Townhall, Cal Thomas asked her whether or not she would follow in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan and Bill Bennett and try to dismantle the Department of Education. She replied with the following statement:

I do think there are some federal roles around ensuring children with special needs and then the anti-discrimination issues at the level they were originally intended. Those are areas in which I think there is a federal role, but I also think there is an opportunity to streamline and simplify a lot of the engagement and involvement the department has had around some of these issues, issues that have continued to mushroom and grow well beyond the core focus of those two important functions and protections.

Essentially, she seems to be saying that while she believes the federal government has too much power in education, she does think the federal government should play a role in ensuring equal access to education for students with special needs and for “anti-discrimination issues” (which presumably refers to discrimination against non-white students and girls).

But the first part of this statement is in direct contrast to her answer to a confirmation-hearing question about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that entitles students with disabilities to a free pubic education with whatever individual modifications and resources they require. In the confirmation hearing, Senator Tim Kaine asked, “Should all K-12 schools receiving governmental funding be required to meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?” And in reply, DeVos said: “I think that’s a matter that’s best left to the states.”

The back-and-forth around that question, along with DeVos’s answer to a later question about IDEA by Senator Maggie Hassan in which DeVos says that she “may have confused” IDEA with something else, seemed to suggest that at the time of her confirmation hearing, DeVos wasn’t aware that IDEA was a federal law, and perhaps wasn’t even aware that it existed. Luckily, her Townhall interview answer about the federal government’s role in education suggests that she has learned more about IDEA since her confirmation, at least enough to say that she thinks the federal government should have a role in protecting the rights of students with special needs.

Unfortunately, however, it seems she didn’t really mean even that. She gave an interview with Axios in which she said, “It would be fine with me to have myself worked out of a job,” indicating that it would be fine with her if the Department of Education were to be dismantled. She went on to say the following:

I think in some of the areas around protecting students and ensuring safe environments for them, there is a role to play … I mean, when we had segregated schools and when we had a time when, you know, girls weren’t allowed to have the same kind of sports teams — I mean, there have been important inflection points for the federal government to get involved.

That answer seems to indicate that DeVos believes the federal government has played important roles in education in the past. But, when asked if there are any education-related areas in which the federal government should play a role today, she said, “I can’t think of any now.”

People in office are expected to have strong opinions and beliefs on important issues. And they are also certainly allowed to change their minds on those issues, especially if they do so because they have taken the time to educate themselves, think critically about their own positions, and consider all the angles.

But it seems that DeVos, who has some measure of power over real students and families in this country, either doesn’t know her own mind or is purposely avoiding taking a hard stand. She owes it to the students she purports to want to protect to figure out where she stands on the important issues, grow a backbone, and then stick to her story — so that, at the very least, people can predict what she will do next and work to support her or oppose her accordingly.

News // Betsy Devos / Education / LGBTQ / Transgender