Surely there are more than two Republican senators who are smart enough to realize that Betsy DeVos is neither qualified nor competent to lead the U.S. Department of Education. Which makes her confirmation Tuesday all the more maddening. For all of President Donald Trump’s talk as a candidate about disrupting Washington as usual, there is nothing more politics-as-usual than this: Elected officials who know better, who know they’re doing a bad thing for the country, but who go ahead and do it anyway because they need a future relationship with a president who they probably also know is unsuited for his job, and because they fear incurring the wrath of GOP leaders if they cross the party line in the name of good governance.
Two courageous Republican senators did just that, and let’s name them here, because anyone who puts children’s education ahead of party politics deserves a shout-out: Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. The rest fell in line, creating a 50-50 tie that was broken with a yes vote by Vice President Mike Pence.
The vote Tuesday was, of course, a harbinger of bad things to come in the world of education. But even worse, it was a clear message from the more rational, thoughtful members of the Republican Party that we should not count on them to stand up to Trump when his statements and actions are reckless, ill-considered or just plain dumb. That’s very troubling; this is a particularly poor moment in history for them to surrender their independence.
Some of DeVos’ beliefs about public education are noxious, especially her apparent view that it doesn’t need to be public at all. Her enthusiasm for private school vouchers, for instance, raises concerns about accountability, fairness and support for education as a common good. But the beliefs themselves aren’t what we find disqualifying; the president, after all, deserves some leeway to appoint people with wrongheaded views.
To put it baldly, she showed at her confirmation hearing that not only did she have no real background in public schools, she had nothing to contribute to the ongoing debates on how to make them better. Actually, she didn’t even seem to know what the debates are — or about the existence of existing laws governing education. Let’s forget the silly remark about some schools needing guns for protection against grizzly bears — please — and remember that she was unfamiliar with the key ways in which student achievement is measured, or the federal law for protecting students with disabilities, and that she refused to say she’d hold all kinds of schools equally accountable.
A few heads should be hanging with shame in the Senate today. If they were unable to show integrity or basic guts in such a clear-cut case, Americans should expect no courage from them in the worrisome years to come.
This story was updated at 2:27 p.m.