In Defense of Secretary DeVos
Last week, amid all the chaos and uncertainty, our country lost a truly dedicated public servant as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos tendered her resignation. From the outset, Secretary DeVos has been embattled, unfairly maligned by a biased media that often provided illegitimate criticisms and never offered much-deserved praise. Earlier last week, for example, the New York Times’s Editorial Board engaged in the most unfair of these criticisms. The Editorial Board, in its latest iteration of authorial injustice, made the unfounded claim that Secretary of Education Betsy Devos was “perhaps the most disastrous leader in the Education Department’s history.” Many of the Times’ criticisms fail to withstand scrutiny. For example, they unduly blame her for education shortfalls from the COVID pandemic. In this, the Editorial Board betrays its fundamental belief that all policy can and must be centralized in Washington. The Secretary, they allege, has been a “mere bystander” throughout the pandemic simply because she refused to weigh in on school district-level data or opine on school reopening plans, deferring to the appropriate local and state authorities. The reality, of course, is that Secretary DeVos and the Department of Education quite correctly realized that it would have been impractical, at least, and harmful, at worst, to try to dictate a national education policy for school closures and reopenings as infection rates fluctuated rapidly at different hot spots around the country. This implicit criticism that a Democrat would have handled the situation any better is belied by the irony that many of the most worrisome educational lapses have come from heavily Democratic areas. Throughout the pandemic, for example, unions in large cities across the country have demanded that their teachers not have to participate in student supervision and live instruction. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second largest, made an agreement with union leaders back in April that required teachers to hold just three live office hours per week.
The reality is that any other Secretary of Education would have fared far worse. While the New York Times suggests that the simple fix for educational inequities would be to remedy the “shortage of testing data for Black, Hispanic and poor children,” they ignore that calls for standardized testing would not go very far in Democratic circles. Over the summer, teachers unions in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, Milwaukee, and St. Paul joined together in a coalition that called for a moratorium on such testing. Now, unions in Chicago are threatening to strike over supposed safety concerns about school reopenings, despite the fact that teachers are on vacation in the Bahamas. Students have struggled during these exceptionally difficult months, but these failures should not fall at Secretary DeVos’s feet.
In this, the Editorial Board continues in a long tradition of unfairly blaming Secretary DeVos for failures in areas over which she has no jurisdiction. On this front, the writers at the New York Times have had their knives out for Secretary DeVos ever since her nomination was announced in November 2016, before the Trump Administration even took office. In December 2016, for example, they blamed the then-nominee for the failure of Detroit schools. Even though Secretary DeVos had never held direct responsibility over any of these lagging schools, the Times back then painted her as the mastermind orchestrating a plot to pursue her own education agenda. Now, on the other hand, they claim that she had “almost no experience in public education” and was “clearly uninterested” in pursuing the Department’s mission. Many people can claim that they’ve been treated unfairly by the press, but Secretary DeVos’s critics have been remarkably aggressive, not to mention capricious, from the beginning.
But the Editorial Board’s most egregious biases are confirmed in their comparison of Secretary DeVos and Biden’s nominee, Miguel Cardona. Cardona, they insist, would work to “advance policies that benefit all schoolchildren and protect the most vulnerable.” Unsurprisingly, in offering this assessment, the Editorial Board makes no mention of Secretary DeVos’s major accomplishments during her tenure. In truth, her policies have offered unparalleled opportunities for millions of American students and restored the rule of law on American college campuses. In so doing, she has helped guarantee that American students of all backgrounds have the ability to pursue an education that prepares them for the future and affords them a viable path to economic mobility.
If the editorial board were truly concerned with the impact of Secretary DeVos’s policies on minority communities, they might have mentioned her advocacy for school choice. Her Education Freedom Scholarship proposal would have established $5 billion in federal tax credits for individuals and businesses that donated to qualified scholarship-granting nonprofits. These credits would have offered low-income families with significant educational opportunities without any direct federal spending or dramatic increases in the federal bureaucracy. Likewise, her staunch advocacy for charter schools demonstrated a fervent belief in empowering minority and low-income families. Many of these charters have delivered astonishing results for vulnerable students being failed by chronically-underperforming public school districts. In New York’s Success Academy Charter Schools, for example, more than 90% of students are children of color and more than 75% are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Nevertheless, 82% of black and Hispanic students passed the state’s English Language Arts (ELA) exam and 94% of these students passed the state mathematics exam. In contrast, over 90% of black and Hispanic children failed to reach proficiency in more than a quarter of New York City’s public schools. The data actually shows that if all Success Academy charter schools were combined into one school district, it would be New York’s top-performing district, ahead of far wealthier areas in Westchester and Long Island like Scarsdale, Chappaqua, and Syosset. This is just one extraordinary example of the transformative power of the programs for which Secretary DeVos has fought tirelessly. Charters give low-income and minority families the kinds of educational choices that are usually only afforded to wealthier households.
The New York Times may very well believe that Secretary DeVos is leaving behind an Education Department that “lies in ruin.” But I’m willing to wager that millions of American students would beg to differ.