While Rome is burning our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has spent the summer moving into her renovated 22,000 square foot mansion in Holland, Michigan. In your lifetime, have you ever known a time when it’s more important for the Secretary of Education to do her job? We’re in the middle of a major pandemic. Kids are in danger for their lives as they return to their classrooms. Teachers are struggling with fulfilling their responsibilities and protecting their health. States and school districts are navigating this dire educational crisis without the benefit of strong national leadership. While the circumstances of every school district and sometimes every individual school are unique, national guidance—not mandates—but resources, information and empathy would have gone a long way to helping school districts now desperately confronting spike outbursts of the virus or other circumstances that are disrupting the school year even as it just begins.
Amid this crisis, the nation’s national education leader is AWOL. Apparently, a higher priority has been placed on measuring curtains for her palatial home more than 10 times as large as that of the average American’s. Having a big home is not a crime. But abandoning your responsibilities during this crisis should be. (In addition to the 22,000 square foot mansion—check out the blog McMansion Hell for more information on the mansion-, the DeVos family also has been known to be in the possession of more than 10 yachts, the Orlando Magic basketball team, a Florida sports complex, a baseball stadium in Michigan, and a resort in the Bahamas.)
So, who exactly is Betsy Devos? I’m from Michigan. I have known about Betsy DeVos for a long time. Many of my friends are teachers in Michigan. All of them—bar none—were aghast at this appointment. Why? Because she has spent a lifetime demonizing public schools in favor of vouchers and charter schools. Don’t get me wrong. There are many good things about charter schools. In the right circumstances, charter schools can provide educational opportunities to students who otherwise may be deprived of an education due to failing or mismanaged public schools. But the problem with blanket endorsements for charter schools is that it undermines our system of public schools, potentially depriving them of funds, the best teachers, and contributing to racial segregation. Unfortunately, DeVos has been unambiguous in her disdain for public education, a curious and troubling position when taken by the nation’s top education administrator, and in conflict with the unambiguous directives of Congress reflected in education spending legislation. This month, a mobile billboard funded by the Michigan-based nonprofit Protect Our Public Schools (POPS) which reads “No Plan. No Funding. No Experience. Secretary DeVos is gambling with our kids’ lives” is traveling to many cities in Michigan, including Holland, the home of her Mcmansion.
DeVos’ failures are not limited to the areas of elementary and secondary education. Since becoming Secretary of Education, she has radically reversed Obama administration policies intended to protect or assist students. She has cozied up to for-profit schools, removed borrower protections against fraud impacting student-loan borrowers, and worked against the interests of Dreamers, effectively depriving some of them of educational opportunities.
DeVos’ policies are not based on experience or facts. Rather she brought to the Department an ideology reflecting the belief that the Federal government should have no role in education. Pursuant to her ideology, she consistently has worked to undermine public schools, interfere in the independence of post-secondary institutions, weakened Civil Rights protections, and ignored her conflicts of interest which include financial interests in student loan debt collectors, contractors to colleges and universities and, special education providers.
How did DeVos come to be appointed Secretary of Education? Among Trump’s many wealthy cabinet appointees, DeVos is the richest. Members of the Devos family have given more than $17 million to political candidates and committees since 1989. Contributions include giving to more than 20 Republican U.S. senators and various right-wing political organizations, such as the Koch Brothers-backed Freedom Partners Action Fund and American Crossroads, Karl Rove’s SuperPAC. DeVos has served on the Board of Alliance for School Choice. She is married to the former CEO of Amway, Dick Devos. In 2016, the family had an estimated net worth of $5.4 billion. Her brother, Erik Prince, is the founder of the private military company Blackwater which basically supplied mercenaries for hire. Recently he has been accused of recruiting ex-spies to infiltrate liberal groups, including campaigns and unions.
Have you ever seen Betsy DeVos interviewed? First during her confirmation hearings, she suggested that guns may have a place in schools in Western states because of the ever-present threat of grizzly bears. During her disastrous train wreck 60 Minutes interview, she admitted that many public schools in Michigan are not doing well. She also admitted that she has not visited or examined reasons for underperforming schools. She said, “Maybe I should.” In recent months, she has refused to testify before the House Education committee.
The National Education Association (NEA) has issued press release after press release about her damaging stands on education that hurt rather than help the state of our public education. Her stands are so controversial that she requires constant security protection—a protection that is estimated will cost taxpayers close to $26 million by the time Trump’s term is finished.
Never has there been a more pivotal time to have a dedicated Secretary of Education who is committed to ensuring the safety and progress of our children in schools. She should be giving remote/virtual learning the full-court press, establishing standards and ensuring that such learning recognizes and accommodates children’s different learning styles. Other countries are following best practices with great success. Once again under this administration, America comes up short. Who suffers? America’s children. It’s a sorry state of affairs, and yet another example of this administration’s “let them eat cake” mentality.
Maria Grant served as Principal-in-Charge of the Federal Human Capital practice of Deloitte Consulting. Since her retirement from Deloitte, she has focused on writing, music, reading, travel, gardening and nature.