Betsy DeBacle: The Head of Education Needs One

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By Maitefa Angaza

In what was surely intended to be an impressive and reassuring appearance on 60 Minutes, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos instead drew wrath and ridicule from a diversity of quarters. Print and broadcast media, parents and educators were left incredulous and outraged after her revealing interview with Lesley Stahl on Sunday night.

The most widely quoted DeVos response has been the one in this exchange about low-performing schools in her home state of Michigan:

“Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?”

“I don’t know. I can’t say overall that they’ve gotten better… Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it.”

“Have you seen the really bad schools?” Stahl asked. “Maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?”

“I have not. I have not – I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.”

“Maybe you should.”

“Maybe I should. Yes.”

Her cavalier demeanor in a time of crisis caused many to question anew DeVos’ commitment and her fitness for the position she holds. When schools fail students, personal trajectories are altered. Communities take the hit as well – sometimes for generations. Yet, DeVos also appeared not to know basic statistics about U.S. public schools in general. She tells Stahl at one point:

“We have invested billions and billions of dollars and we have seen zero results.”

“But that really isn’t true,” Stahl relied. “Test scores have gone up over the last 25 years. So why do you keep saying nothing’s been accomplished?”

Apparently, DeVos is parroting propaganda with not a modicum of research. This also characterizes her grasp of the issues concerning Black and brown students in her charge.

Not all “low-performing” schools are in urban areas or predominantly Black neighborhoods. But although Black families are disproportionately impacted by the failures of DeVos’ agency, she has yet to demonstrate that she comprehends – or cares to comprehend – their plight. Case in point: the time she attempted to make an argument for charter schools by saying that, “HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) were “pioneers of school choice,” rather than born of necessity, courtesy of racial segregation.

Under DeVos’ “leadership,” the Department of Education is one of the agencies heeding Donald Trump’s call to repeal those Obama administration initiatives that Trump sees as “regulatory burdens.” The department repealed 63 Office of Special Education Program guidelines, including some helping parents attain due process in advocating for their children. Others of these were created to prevent programs receiving federal money from discriminating against people with disabilities, for example.

One of the most troubling of these directives is DeVos’ decision to have her newly formed Federal Commission on School Safety – which she will head – consider the repeal of President Obama’s “Rethink School Discipline” policies. Under the guise of “hardening schools,” a process that will allow teachers to carry guns, the commission would do away with safeguards protecting students of color and disabled students from disproportionate discipline and suspensions.

If DeVos follows through with her push to repeal Obama’s policies, schools will once again be allowed to report students deemed problematic directly to law enforcement, further entrenching the school-to-prison pipeline. Federal reports verify the validity of complaints about white students being sent to the principal’s office while other students get a police report.

Stahl asked DeVos about this in the 60 Minutes interview. Her response:

“We are studying that rule. We need to ensure that all students have an opportunity to learn in a safe and nurturing environment. And all students mean all students.”

“Yeah, but let’s say there’s a disruption in the classroom,” Stahl persists, “and a bunch of white kids are disruptive and they get punished, you know, go see the principal, but the Black kids are, you know, they call in the cops. I mean, that’s the issue: who and how the kids who disrupt are being punished.”

“Arguably, all of these issues or all of this issue comes down to individual kids. And—”

“Well, no,” said Stahl, interrupting. “That—it’s not.”

“Do you think that teachers should have guns in the classroom?”

“That should be an option for states and communities to consider,” said DeVos. “And I hesitate to think of, like my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Zorhoff – I couldn’t ever imagine her having a gun and being trained in that way. But for those who are, who are capable, this is one solution that can and should be considered.”

“Do you see yourself as a leader in this – in this subject? And what kind of ideas will you be promoting?”

“I have actually asked to head up a task force that will really look at what states are doing. See, there are a lot of states that are addressing these issues in very cohesive and coherent ways.”

“Do you feel a sense of urgency?” Stahl asked.

“Yes.”

“Because this sounds like talking – instead of acting.”

“No, there is a sense of urgency indeed.”

Could the urgency be to head up a task force and then approach officials in various states, not with a plan for safeguarding their children, but to take crib notes about what you should do?

It’s reported that the 60 Minutes segment is causing Republicans to be nervous about the optics for their party. The term “uniquely unqualified” has been used to describe DeVos by more than one media outlet since the airing of this interview. But it seems she’d have to share that title with the man in the White House who appointed her. Given her disastrous performance thus far, she could just answer to the name Betsy DeBacle.