A response (in part) to P. L. Thomas’s article, “The Betsy DeVos Dilemma: 14 March 2018,” which cited a couple of my tweets:

I didn’t watch the 60 Minutes interview with Betsy DeVos – just the clips that folks shared on Twitter. But even based on the few snippets that I watched, I think the consensus (on my social media, at least) was fair: it was pretty embarrassing. DeVos has been at this over a year now and still hasn’t memorized the talking points she needs to give in these sorts of media appearances.

There’s a lot to say about DeVos – me, I’m particularly interested in how investors and philanthropists like herself have long been shaping education policy. And I don’t think that it’s just her poor media performances (which includes her confirmation hearing) that has made her the most hated Cabinet member. (Although that sure doesn’t help.) I’ve heard a lot of folks say that she’s grossly unqualified to be Secretary of Education. Sure. But the Trump Administration is tapping into a certain cultural distrust right now in “expertise.” What makes her qualified, in the mind of Trumpists, is precisely her lack of qualifications – that she wants to dismantle and destroy her department. There’s a lot going on with DeVos, and not just that she can only smile and bat her eyes at Lesley Stahl.

After watching the various conversations about the 60 Minutes interview online, I made the mistake of tweeting something about John King, the previous Secretary. This is not a guy I’d typically stand up for, let’s be honest, and I only decided to mention him having seen conservatives (think tanks, the National Review, for starters) flesh out their latest line of thinking: that Obama-era school discipline policies are to blame for the school shooting in Florida. As I tried to clarify on Twitter, King had a brief stint as the Secretary of Education, and his track record before and after that would certainly suggest that he has long lived neatly in line with the kinds of education reform policies that have been promoted for decades now, by Republican and Democrat administrations alike – namely charters. But he did take his moment under the Department of Education seal, I would say, to talk about racial disparities. That’s worth noting, even if it was “just talk.”

So I think it’s a mistake to say that “all Secretaries of Education are equally bad.” Or “all Secretaries of Education are the same.” It’s simply not true. And more importantly, it’s not particularly helpful. While I believe that there were many, many, many, many flaws in Obama’s education policies (and in Reagan’s and the Bushes’ and Clinton’s before that), I don’t think we can overlook the places in which each administration positioned policy and narratives differently – for better and for worse. King was different from Duncan. Duncan was different from Spellings. Spellings was different from Paige. Paige was different from Alexander. They’re all awfully similar, yes. But they weren’t the same. It’s silly to suggest as much.

On the plus side of Obama’s education policies, I’d place the focus on the racial disparities in school discipline. It’s part of the national conversation – “the school-to-prison pipeline.” It wasn’t a narrative that the Obama Administration started; but it’s one that it magnified. That matters. On the plus side of Obama’s education policies, I’d also posit the policy guidance it gave to schools on transgender students. These stances should not be discounted – they were new stances and they were importance stances – and they should not be discounted, particularly if we believe that one of the reasons to have a Department of Education is to uphold the civil rights of all students in all states and in all schools.

And certainly these efforts shouldn’t be discounted because these policies have already been targeted and undone by DeVos. If she was the same as her predecessors, there would be no undoing.

I’d be remiss too if I didn’t mention here the Obama Administration’s efforts to rein in for-profit higher education. These were also incredibly significant – again, this is something that Trump has sought to undo from the outset, making it more difficult for students ripped off by these schools to get their loans discharged, making it easier for these schools to maintain their accreditation. Indeed, the industry was on the ropes for the last few years – or so it seemed. But the industry appears to be back with a vengeance now. There are many ways, I should note, that we could view the exploitation of for-profits through a civil rights lens. It is, after all, disproportionately Black women who are targeted by these schools.

I think this is part of the struggle that we face right now: addressing a Department of Education that has, for decades now (and I’d say even before its official creation), been committed to privatization and one that has been committed to social justice. Both of these trajectories exist within the Department of Education – within any Department of Education. So perhaps the point should be less “who’s the worst Secretary of Education ever” and more “which specific policies hurt” and “which policies ”help" – because education is much more complex than talking heads and Twitter punditry.

Audrey Watters


Audrey Watters


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