Every time President-elect Donald Trump names a cabinet pick, liberals have a field day— how can they paint a Trump pick as racist, elitist, extremist, and all-around evil? These attacks reached a fever pitch against Trump’s selection for secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.
As Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) wrote in National Review, the debate over education usually proceeds with “a modicum of civility.”
In 2015, President Obama nominated former New York education commissioner John King to be secretary of education. The very same Republican Senate which fought tooth and nail against Obama’s Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland raised nary a peep against King, despite his troubled record in New York, which featured a horrible rollout of Common Core.
Arne Duncan, Obama’s first secretary of education, had never taught, and had served for seven years as superintendent of schools in Chicago — which had some of the nation’s highest-paid teachers, mediocre student outcomes, and an underfunded pension fund. Duncan was even a basketball friend of Obama’s, and could have been attacked as a Chicago crony. He was not.
But when Trump chose DeVos, the floodgates opened. Here are seven attacks liberals launched against her, and explanations of why they are dead wrong.
1. She’s against public education.
“Betsy DeVos is very much against public education,” declared USA Today senior political reporter Heidi Przybyla on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” Przybyla wasn’t alone, either. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss wrote a story entitled “To Trump’s education pick, the U.S. public school system is a ‘dead end.'”
Strauss was indeed quoting DeVos’ words, from a speech she gave at South by Southwest in Texas in 2015. “We are beneficiaries of start-ups, ventures, and innovation in every other area of life, but we don’t have that in education because it’s a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market,” DeVos said. “It’s a monopoly, a dead end. And the best and brightest innovators and risk-takers steer way clear of it. As long as education remains a closed system, we will never see the education equivalents of Google, Facebook, Amazon, PayPal, Wikipedia, or Uber.”
DeVos wasn’t condemning the U.S. education system, she was supporting reforms to bring in more choice. “Reasonable people don’t read that speech or listen to it and get hung up on ‘dead end,'” wrote Ed Patru, spokesman for Friends of Betsy DeVos, in an email to Valerie Strauss.
“Strauss knows full well that Betsy doesn’t believe public schools are a dead end, but she ran the headline anyway,” Patru told PJ Media in an email statement. “Strauss took a quote, divorced it from context, and then labeled Betsy and opponent of public education writ large. It’s among the most dishonest reporting I’ve seen in 20 years.”
Patru argued that DeVos does not push for school choice in “the thousands of school districts across the country where public schools are doing a great job.” Rather, her “focus has always been on the hundreds of thousands of poor kids who, by no fault of their own, are forced to attend public schools that aren’t working.” In sum, “it’s eminently possible to be both pro-public schools AND pro-choice.”
2. She’s got an unfair donor advantage.
The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer wrote an exposé about DeVos, labeling her “Trump’s Big-Donor Education Secretary.” Mayer used DeVos’s record of contributing heavily to conservative causes to attack Trump, whose campaign attacked “the donor class” during the election. While Mayer did not explicitly say DeVos bought Trump off, the article heavily suggests it.
DeVos is indeed a big donor, and has been attacked on that score for a long time. “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence,” she wrote in a 1997 article for Roll Call. “Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment.”
In the 2016 campaign, DeVos spent heavily, but not in favor of Trump. Instead, she attacked the businessman, saying he “does not represent the Republican Party.”
Nevertheless, DeVos is well suited to reform the Department of Education in a more choice-friendly direction.
DeVos has served as board chair for the American Federation for Children, as head of All Children Matter (a political action committee for school choice advocates), and as a board member for Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, a Florida think tank. Education analyst Andrew Rotherham, a former special assistant in Bill Clinton’s White House, described her as a “pretty mainstream pick.”
Betsy DeVos = pretty mainstream pick – though usual suspects on right & left of course are already going bonkers https://t.co/r8iJFsIuK1
— Andrew Rotherham (@arotherham) November 23, 2016
While Mayer suggested Trump’s pick of DeVos represented a rejection of Trump’s populist campaign promises, it really represents his willingness to select even a woman who bankrolled his political opponents, because she represents a new path forward for the Department of Education. Her political giving should have counted against her in Trump’s mind, but he chose her anyway.
Furthermore, Politico‘s Michael Stratford investigated DeVos’s support given to Republican senators, including $50,000 in donations to 3-4 members of the HELP committee, but failed to mention the roughly $637,000 which labor unions have given to Democrats on the committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
3. She’s against all regulation.
The New York Times‘s Kate Zernike painted DeVos as an anti-regulation extremist. “A believer in a freer market than even some free market economists would endorse, Ms. DeVos pushed back on any regulation as too much regulation. Charter schools should be allowed to operate as they wish,” Zernike wrote.
“That is an organized labor talking point verbatim,” Patru, the spokesman for Friends of Betsy DeVos, told PJ Media. He explained that Zernike’s story was “well-reported” but “completely one-sided” because “it made no attempt to understand or explain why Betsy opposed a labor-supported plan to create a third bureaucracy overseeing charter schools in Detroit.”
What DeVos opposed, Patru explained, wasn’t oversight itself but rather a double standard for public and charter schools: “It wasn’t because Betsy’s opposed to oversight; it was because Betsy is opposed to imposing additional oversight on charters while Detroit public schools have none. One hundred charters have closed in Michigan; not a single traditional public school has closed.”
Rather than opposing all oversight, DeVos actually backed legislation to subject Detroit charters to more accountability. As Politico reported, DeVos supported many steps to increase oversight, including “a measure requiring automatic closure of charters that rank in the bottom 5 percent of schools for three consecutive years.”
Her Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP) pushed an “A-F Accountability System,” which requires accreditation for charter authorizers, and mandates the closure or restructuring of charter schools which underperform for three consecutive years. She also backed an accountability system in Detroit which would hold both charter and public schools accountable for failure.
4. She’s an elitist.
The New Yorker‘s Rebecca Mead, after noting that DeVos has no ties to Putin and has not actively called for the dismantling of the department she was chosen to lead, went on to suggest that her history made her unqualified to run the department. What experience? “DeVos has never taught in a public school, never administered one, nor sent her children to one.”
To this, Patru had a strong, simple response. “Neither Obama, nor Hillary, were ever said to be unqualified to lead on education issues, despite the fact that they both sent their kids to private school and never seriously considered enrolling their kids in DC public schools,” the Friends of Betsy DeVos spokeswoman told PJ Media.
In 2015, Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan pulled his children out of public school and put them in private school. Current Education Secretary John B. King Jr. credited his public school teachers with his success, but even he is a proponent of charter schools, and helped to found one. Does this make him an unqualified elitist?
5. She’s a racist.
The New York Times‘ Zernike quoted Tonya Allen, president of the Detroit non-profit the Skillman Foundation. “If she was showing herself present in places and learning from the practitioners, that’s a fine combination,” Allen said. “But Betsy never showed up in Detroit. She was very eager to impose experimentation on students that she has not spent time with and children that she does not have consequence for.”
Patru argued that this was an obvious insinuation that DeVos is racist, considering black children unworthy of her care. “The subtext there is anything but subtle,” the Friends of Betsy DeVos spokesman told PJ Media.
While this racial line of attack has not been explicit, it could not be further from the truth. Patru pointed out “the broad base of support she has earned among African Americans, urban Democrats, Latinos, and other minorities because of her work in promoting educational equality.”
Even Slate’s Dana Goldstein, in an article warning about DeVos’s plans to “gut public education,” admitted that “some private school voucher programs have even produced mild reductions in the racial and socio-economic segregation of poor students of color.”
“There isn’t a serious person in America who looks at Betsy’s nearly 30-year record of investing her time, energy and fortune in bringing educational equity to communities of color and concludes that her motivation for doing this is racism,” Patru declared. “It doesn’t even make sense. It’s absurd and preposterous on its face.”
This likely explains why The New York Times‘ Zernike did not explicitly attack DeVos as racist. But Patru insisted that the racial attack is there. “That is one of the mainstream media narratives we’re seeing: that Betsy’s policies are part of a larger right-wing effort to control minorities.”
6. She’s a religious extremist.
Shortly after Trump announced DeVos as his education pick, liberals launched a coordinated attack branding her as a religious extremist. The ACLU of Michigan said her support for school vouchers “perverts the bedrock American value of separation of church and state,” because vouchers allow parents to choose religious schools.
The head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State argued that DeVos “fought to divert resources away from public schools into private, mostly religious institutions,” adding that “she is the leader of the crusade to create school vouchers across the country.” (emphasis added) The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer and The New York Times‘ Katherine Stewart joined the attack.
In order to support this argument, Stewart seemed to think it necessary to roll out a 30-year-old quote from a pastor distantly related to DeVos. Stewart even described DeVos as a member of a fringe religious group aiming to enforce “biblical laws” and replace public schools with all-religious schools. This is patently ridiculous.
More specifically, the argument that vouchers violate the First Amendment — which forbids the establishment of religion, the closest thing to a real “separation of church and state” — is false. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in the 2002 Supreme Court case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, explained that when an individual uses public funds to make a private choice — even if a parent uses a voucher to send his or her child to a private religious school — that does not violate the First Amendment.
Voucher programs are “neutral in respect to religion [because they] provide assistance directly to a broad class of citizens, who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice.”
“Betsy has never and will never attempt to impose her personal beliefs on anyone,” Patru, the Friends of Betsy DeVos spokesman, told PJ Media. “To the contrary, she’s been an outspoken advocate for empowering parents to choose how their children are educated.”
7. She supports child labor.
Almost immediately after Trump chose DeVos, Alana Horowitz Satlin, assignment editor at the Huffington Post, breathlessly informed Americans of a horrible secret: “Group Funded By Trump’s Education Secretary Pick: ‘Bring Back Child Labor.'”
Yes, Satlin seems terrified DeVos would put kids back in the coal mines and the 19th century factories.
But there are many problems with this narrative. First, it wasn’t even DeVos making the argument. While she was an Acton Institute board member for ten years, and her family’s foundation has donated money to the group, the article arguing for child labor was written by Joseph Sunde, a project coordinator at the Acton Institute.
Furthermore, Sunde was arguing that teenagers should be more able (and probably encouraged) to work “a few hours a week at a fast-food restaurant or grocery store.”
In an update, the author added important caveats. “I do NOT endorse replacing education with paid labor, nor do I support sending our children back into the coal mines or other high-risk jobs, nor do I support getting rid of mandatory education at elementary and middle-school ages.”
So Sunde wasn’t pushing mandatory back-breaking work, but a healthy work ethic among teens. Is the Left really so desperate as to attack DeVos for supporting something heinous that not even the author of the post would call for? Then again, they literally started crying after Democrats lost the House, the Senate, and the presidency. I guess desperate attacks are actually fitting.