Betsy DeVos’ love of private school vouchers didn’t disqualify her for the role of U.S. Education secretary, even though vouchers are a bad idea. Nor did her lack of experience in public schools.
What did render her unacceptable was her abysmal performance at her confirmation hearing Tuesday, during which she displayed an astonishing ignorance about basic education issues, an extraordinary lack of thoughtfulness about ongoing debates in the field and an unwillingness to respond to important questions.
She was so unprepared that she sounded like a schoolchild who hadn’t done her homework. She frankly embarrassed herself and should be rejected by the Senate. Better yet, President-elect Donald Trump should withdraw her name and find someone who at least meets the basic qualifications for the post.
The hearing probably will be remembered for the grizzly-bear moment, when DeVos suggested that a public school in Wyoming might need to have guns on campus to protect against trespassing grizzlies. But her important bloopers were on more substantive ground.
DeVos said, reasonably enough, that all kinds of schools — traditional public, charter, private — could expect her support if they did a good job of educating students. But then she contradicted herself by refusing to say that she would hold charter and private schools just as accountable as conventional public schools. Doing a good job matters only for some schools, apparently.
And how would schools be measured — based on whether they meet a certain standard of proficiency, or how much they improve over time? DeVos floundered trying to address this issue raised by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), clearly unfamiliar with one of the central questions in school reform. As Franken said in a deserved rebuke, “This is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years.”
DeVos apparently didn’t even realize that there’s a federal law protecting the educational rights of students with disabilities, saying it should be up to states to make decisions about disabled students. Told that this was a matter of federal law, she stumbled yet again, saying, well, then, the law should be followed, and suggesting that she might have been confused earlier. In addition, she was wildly off in her figures on student debt.
Add to this her failure to answer questions about her home state of Michigan’s underperforming charter schools, whose growth she advocated; about existing laws to protect adults from predatory for-profit colleges; or whether she would honor the Obama administration’s rules regarding sexual abuse on campus.
DeVos is entitled and expected to disagree with Obama administration policies; what disqualifies her is her lack of understanding of existing law and policy, and her inability to address them thoughtfully.