A year in, Betsy DeVos is exactly who we thought she was

A year in, Betsy DeVos is exactly who we thought she was
© Greg Nash

If you watched Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosEducation Department closes 1,200 Obama-era civil rights probes The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — Trump caves under immense pressure — what now? Education Department ordered to stop collecting debts from defrauded Corinthian College students MORE’ performance on 60 Minutes, her deer-in-the-headlights look might have been a familiar one. It’s the same look DeVos had during her confirmation hearing, roundly panned as one of the weakest performances ever by a cabinet nominee. 

DeVos’ critics see her as the single-issue activist with a bottomless bank account and abject lack of experience in education. Her supporters have been trying desperately to recast her as a “relatively mainstream pick,” the victim of an unconscionable Washington double standard and maybe even a transformational figure, eager to help the country “rethink school.”

A year in, which shoe fits?

ADVERTISEMENT
I get the sense that the truth about DeVos has always been hiding in plain sight, and not just because her shortcomings were on full display the other night on 60 Minutes. One of the curious features of her biography, of course, is DeVos’ lack of experience in public education.

 

In many ways she seems to welcome the criticism. She has fashioned herself not as a secretary of public education, but as a person whose job it is to see to it that all kids get the education they deserve, no matter how it’s delivered.

Just take a look at her limited experience in public education. For five years in the early 2000s, DeVos was a volunteer mentor in public schools in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Her experience was chronicled in an episode of “This American Life,” that offers a glimpse of DeVos as a mentor. For me, it raises disturbing questions about her approach to improving education.

For starters, DeVos hardly cuts the figure of a person invested in the welfare of the schools she visited. One teacher describes the disconcerting experience of first seeing DeVos, in her “thousand dollar suit and her really pretty shoes” in a school where the drinking fountains didn’t work and the bathrooms didn’t have soap. It was rumored that DeVos never drove herself to the school when she was mentoring because she didn’t want to leave her car in the parking lot. Instead, she had a driver drop her off at the front door and park his SUV on the sidewalk while he waited for her to come back out. 

These kinds of revelations, to some, render DeVos a more complex human being. She went to volunteer at the school, after all. She showed she cared. And, they say, it was in her role as a mentor that DeVos showed her true colors. 

DeVos bought books for some kids, helped the mother of one of her students find a job, and even helped a couple of the kids she worked with attend private schools. Sounds nice.

Buying books is a nice touch, but it should be noted that DeVos also bought the mother of one of her students a car. That job she found for the parent of one of her students was doing DeVos’ laundry. And to say DeVos “helped a handful of kids attend private schools,” which is how one writer has put it, is not quite accurate either. Two of the students featured in the story seem to have been practically pushed into transferring to private schools, which DeVos then helped pay for. 

One clearly describes how she felt when DeVos informed her that she would be transferring to a new Christian school. “Oh, I cried,” the student, a girl named Angie, said. “I remember it was the last day of my second grade, and I had just came home, and they said that I wasn't going back, and I cried.”

Yes, it turns out that the new school Angie transferred to was better than her old one. It was not under-resourced. She got more attention there. She progressed faster. But this wasn’t all about academics. Sometimes DeVos took Angie out for hot chocolate downtown, which meant that Angie got to ride in Betsy’s fleet of nice cars. Eventually, Angie also got a job working as a house cleaner — DeVos.

The students that DeVos has helped seem clearly to have been affected in some positive ways by their relationship with her. But it raises questions about the role DeVos played in the lives of the students she was randomly assigned to mentor — and the role she didn’t play in the lives of the students not lucky enough to have her as a mentor.

When DeVos facilitated the movement of one of the students she mentored into a private school she said everything she needed to say about her approach to education. A “voucher for one,” as “This American Life" called it.

DeVos now has immense power to decide what education in America ought to look like. If her past is any guide, DeVos’ vision is one of wealthy benefactors showering selected students with opportunities, but it can never be enough.

It also matters that the students featured in this story, the ones DeVos helped transfer to private schools, both wound up in religious schools. The message this sends is unmistakable, and one we’d be wise to heed: Private citizens owe nothing to the public. Their generosity could disappear as quickly as it materializes, and it could come with strings attached.

It seems to me that DeVos is neither mainstream nor transformational. She’s a person with limited experience in education driven by an idea about how to fix something that she perceives as broken, which makes her a lot like everyone else. What makes her different is the size of the microphone as part of the Trump administration, which seems to be directly related to the size of her bank account.

Maybe her generosity to the students she’s helped shows that DeVos has a good heart, but having a good heart is hardly the only qualification needed to improve the lives of children. If it was we’d already be satisfied with the state of our public schools, where good-hearted people work every day to do right by the children, and the public, they serve.

In the end, I think it’s clear: She is who we thought she was.

Dave Powell is an associate professor of education at Gettysburg College.