I wasn’t happy with all of Donald Trump’s original cabinet choices, but I cheered his appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. The daughter-in-law of Amway founder Richard DeVos and the sister of Blackwater founder Erik Prince, she’s a philanthropist who developed over a period of decades into a deeply serious education expert and a leader of several major organizations promoting substantial education reform. With her husband, Dick, she awarded scholarships, was involved in mentoring, fought for school choice, and, in the year 2000, supported a school-choice initiative in their home state of Michigan. When it went down to defeat in a referendum, Dick, with Betsy’ encouragement, started his own highly regarded private high school, the West Michigan Aviation Academy. Then, in 2016, came Trump’s victory and a phone call from Jeb Bush, of all people, who asked whether she’d be interested in a Trump administration post.
DeVos was on the fence. All her activity as an education reformer had taken place at the state and local level. She believed in grassroots control, because she believed in the importance of diversity and experimentation, in different kinds of schools for kids with different needs, and fiercely opposed one-size-fits-all remedies imposed by clueless federal bureaucrats on kids who lived thousands of miles away from them.
In her new memoir, Devos reminds us that the founder of American public education, Horace Mann, based his system on “the model of rigid, mass education developed in eighteenth-century Prussia,” and that he described parents as “having given hostages to our cause.” In DeVos’s view, it’s time for parents to take back education from the technocrats and “experts” and teachers’ unions and thereby ensure that their children are, in the words of her title, “Hostages No More.”
Created by Jimmy Carter as a cynical sop to the teachers’ unions, the Department of Education (DOE) has ever since been Ground Zero for opposition to education reform. Even Carter’s Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare opposed the department’s creation. So did the Washington Post – because it was obvious that the new department was not about helping kids but about serving the interest of teachers and their unions. The moment the department came into being, writes DeVos, the National Education Association (NEA) “became the single most powerful special interest in the Democratic Party, if not the entire country.” When Reagan ran for president, one of his promises was to eliminate the DOE. He never did. Instead, years later, George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act enhanced the federal government’s power over American education.
DeVos was intimately familiar with this history. Still, she felt she might be able to make a difference if confirmed as Secretary of Education. So she agreed to meet with Trump. They clicked. Among other things, they agreed that a lot of kids should be encouraged to pursue vocational training instead of wasting money on college. One day soon after their conversation, the phone rang. It was Trump. “YOU’RE GOING TO MAKE A GREAT SECRETARY OF EDUCATION!” he enthused. First, however, she had to make it through the Senate confirmation process. She met with the members of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Al Franken was cordial. Even Bernie Sanders was pleasant. But Elizabeth Warren, who’d sent her own child to a private school, “was one of the coldest people I have ever met.”
Then there was Cory Booker. During his stint as city councilor and then mayor of Newark, DeVos had worked closely and amiably with him on local school reform. She’d considered him to be “a valuable voice for the school choice movement.” But that had ended soon enough. A union flack took Booker aside and read him the riot act: if he “kept talking about charters,” he’d never be elected to any office again. Booker fell into lockstep. When DeVos came before the Senate committee, there was no Spartacus moment from Booker, who by this point was angling to run for president in 2020. On the contrary, he was “unrecognizable,” so totally did he flip-flop on what had once been one of his core issues. He’d respected DeVos immensely; now he savaged her. “Cory’s betrayal hit deep,” she writes.
It took a tie-breaking vote by Mike Pence to approve DeVos’s appointment. But the Swamp’s resistance to her had only begun. When she visited a school in Washington, D.C., union thugs prevented her from entering the building. She discovered that members of Congress are so “addicted to federal programs” that even some Republicans from whom she expected sympathy and support stood up to her efforts to return authority over some educational matters to the states. “I aimed,” she writes, “to make my job irrelevant” – a mentality alien to most politicians in both parties, whose prime objective, of course, is to enhance their own clout. And the dreary Beltway bureaucrats in their dusty sinecures were even worse, making her first weeks on the job a lesson in “how willful and underhanded the permanent Washington bureaucracy could be” and “how low [they] will go to resist change.”
Some of the worst problems were within her department itself, which was overpacked with underworked layabouts – about 4000 full-time employees plus several thousand contractors who pulled down an average salary of more than $100,000 apiece and who, with few exceptions, were primarily devoted to retaining their jobs and maintaining the institutional status quo. Many were “deadweight.” Inefficiency was through the roof. Under a perverse Obama-era policy, some of them “teleworked” – that is, worked from home – every day, while most others did so once or twice a week. This was the case, bizarrely, even with receptionists. And since the last thing any of these people wanted was to see their department reformed, streamlined, rendered more effective so that it actually served the interests of schoolchildren, DeVos found herself surrounded by enemies. Then of course there were the unions. DeVos tried to smoke the peace pipe with Randi Weingarten, the appalling longtime head of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). It didn’t work. From the git-go, Weingarten and her cronies were obstructive, hostile – and personal. “They had to make it personal,” DeVos writes. “Otherwise they would have to talk about how and why they were failing.”
Even her boss could be a problem. DeVos was displeased by what she considered “missteps and impulsive rhetoric from the White House.” Trump’s people pressured her to put “political loyalists” in DOE jobs “that we did not want or need to fill.” She clashed with Attorney General Jeff Sessions on a policy she considered to be in her wheelhouse, not his. Having found that the terms “school voucher” and “school choice” could be counterproductive, she tried unsuccessfully to push the term “education freedom” on Trump. And after his “good people on both sides” remark at Charlottesville – a remark that, it must be said, was viciously misrepresented in the media – the administration received so much blowback from black institutions that a Department of Education conference for Historically Black Colleges and Universities had to be canceled, leading DeVos to consider, for the first time, resigning her job.
She didn’t. She kept plugging away. She tried to collaborate with people like Senator Lisa Murkowski (D-AK) only to get jerked around. In preparation for a 60 Minutes profile, she took Lesley Stahl to a so-called “innovation” school in Indiana. Stahl was, or pretended to be, “enamored” of the place – but when the 60 Minutes segment aired, it proved to be the usual hit job. DeVos did find a few allies. She praises Candice Jackson of the Office of Civil Rights, who shared her outrage over the misuse of Title IX to deny due process to students falsely accused of sexual abuse. DeVos also has good things to say about Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams and Councilman Kevil Chavous, who worked with her on scholarships. Senator Susan Collins of Maine had been one of the two Republicans to vote against confirming DeVos, but “was always honest and open-minded” and was led to an “aha” moment about education freedom after seeing how a Maine school’s failure was transformed into success after the curriculum was “reoriented…around lobstering,” the community’s chief industry.
Indeed, during her brief time in Washington, DeVos “found that receptivity on Capitol Hill to education reform” was growing. Then came COVID – and what she calls “The Great Parental Awakening.” Thanks to “distanced learning,” parents could finally see what was going on in their kids’ schools – and rebelled. And as the weeks of “distanced learning” stretched into months and then a couple of years – all at the insistence of the teachers’ unions – parents became aware of just how powerful those unions were, and of how they used that power to benefit teachers at the expense of students. As the Wall Street Journal editorialized, the billions allocated for special education aid on account of the pandemic was really a case of Democrats “using the banner of ‘Covid relief’” to reward a Democratic constituency at taxpayer expense.” DeVos herself puts it this way: “When the history of American education during the coronavirus pandemic is written, it will record that when schools closed, parents were awakened to their powerlessness in the face of the education establishment.”
After COVID, another pandemic struck American schools: Critical Race Theory. DeVos notes that the NEA and AFT created “two different funds, the first to promote the value of teaching CRT and the second to defend teachers who were criticized for teaching CRT. But at the same time, they continued to argue that schools weren’t teaching CRT. Incredibly, the legacy corporate media never caught on that these two actions were irreconcilable.” Either that, or they were in on the subterfuge.
DeVos resigned from her position as Secretary of Education on January 8, 2020, saying that Trump hadn’t done enough to stop the Capitol Hill unrest of January 6. She’d already decided that his behavior was “increasingly erratic and unnerving.” It’s unfortunate that her collaboration with Trump ended in this way. Because she was, within the extraordinary constraints imposed by the Swamp, an admirable Secretary of Education. Like Trump, she wasn’t a D.C. insider, was so rich that she couldn’t be bought, and was motivated to serve in Washington not by personal ambition but by a desire to make a difference. The tragedy of America is that the apparatus of its national government is currently in the hands of unprincipled mediocrities who’ve been there for many years and whose overwhelming objective is to stay there for many more years – no matter how greatly the American people, and even American children, may suffer as a consequence of their selfishness.