Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s designated nominee for Secretary of Education, appeared before the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions late Tuesday afternoon. Before I comment further, here is an obligatory picture of a grizzly bear:
This is inspired by one of the oddest interactions of her hearing when Senator Christopher Murphy of Connecticut asked DeVos if she believed that guns belonged in public schools, leading to this exchange:
This was her response to Chris Murphy. Of Connecticut. Whose constituents endured one of the most heart breaking and devastating attacks of violence visited upon a single school in American history. Guns in school, as a matter of principle, should be left to locales because – grizzly bears.
Just as a matter of record: in testimony that was riddled with evasions and factual errors, DeVos’ supposition about guns and grizzly bears was also wrong. According to Politifact, Wyoming bars guns from public schools, and wildlife experts note that anti-bear spray is most likely better than a gun for most people who might confront a bear.
While the Grizzly Bear Gun Hypothesis was a humorous head scratching moment Tuesday evening, it was nowhere near the only one. As could be expected, Republican Senators opted for extreme softball questions, and, disappointingly, Committee Chair Senator Lamar Alexander, himself a former Secretary of Education, denied repeated requests for extending time or holding a follow up hearing. Democrats used their limited time to grill the nominee on a variety of questions about education policy, her own background as a wealthy donor to conservative candidates, and whether or not she would commit to not gutting public schools and enforcing federal education law. In all of these exchanges, DeVos had only two modes of response. One was slippery as an eel trying to escape from a net. The other was woefully unprepared to demonstrate the most basic knowledge of federal education policy and how it impacts schools. On issue after issue, DeVos was unable to articulate cogent responses that she would have known if she had spent even three days on the job as a classroom teacher, as a building or district administrator, or as an elected official with jurisdiction over school policy.
There is no other conclusion to reach: Betsy DeVos is woefully unqualified to be Secretary of Education in the United States of America, and her confirmation puts all schools and students who rely upon the competent administration of the Department of Education at risk.
The evasions began fairly early when Senator Murray of Washington tried to pin down DeVos on potential conflicts of interest. This is a matter of obvious concern as the nominee had still not completed her ethics review paperwork as of Monday, and her family has vast holdings and investments. However, when the Senator tried to pin her down, this was the response:
SEN. MURRAY: WE KNOW FROM PRESS REPORTS THAT YOU AND YOUR FAMILY HAVE INVESTED IN THE EDUCATION INDUSTRY, INCLUDING INVESTMENTS IN A STUDENT LOAN REFINANCING COMPANY AND K12 INC., A CHAIN OF FOR PROFIT ONLINE CHARTER SCHOOLS. YOU TOLD THE COMMITTEE YOU WOULD SEVER TIES WITH THOSE FIRMS, AND YOU ALSO SAID HE WOULD INTEND TO RETURN TO THE BUSINESSES WHEN YOU LEAVE PUBLIC SERVICE. HOW IS THAT DIFFERENT FROM PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP’S ARRANGEMENT?
DEVOS: SENATOR, FIRST OF ALL, LET ME BE VERY CLEAR ABOUT ANY CONFLICTS. WHERE CONFLICTS ARE IDENTIFIED, THEY WILL BE RESOLVED. I WILL NOT BE CONFLICTED, PERIOD. I COMMIT THAT TO YOU WELL. — YOU ALL. WITH RESPECT TO THE ONES YOU CITED, ONE OF THE ONES WE WERE AWARE OF AS WE ENTERED THE PROCESS, THAT IS IN THE PROCESS OF BEING DIVESTED. IF THERE ARE ANY OTHERS THAT ARE IDENTIFIED, THEY WILL BE APPROPRIATELY DIVESTED AS WELL.
SEN. MURRAY: FROM YOUR ANSWER, I ASSUME THAT YOUR AND YOUR FAMILY INTEND TO FOREGO ALL INVESTMENTS IN EDUCATION COMPANIES FROM NOW ON?
DEVOS: ANYTHING DEEMED TO BE A CONFLICT WILL NOT BE PART OF OUR INVESTING.
SEN. MURRAY: HOW DO YOU INTEND TO CONVINCE THIS COMMITTEE THAT NO ENTITY WILL FEEL PRESSURED TO PURCHASE, PARTNER, OR CONTRACT WITH CORPORATE OR NONPROFIT ENTITIES YOU AND YOUR FAMILY INVESTED IN, SHOULD YOU BE CONFIRMED AS SECRETARY?
DEVOS: I CAN COMMIT TO YOU THAT NOBODY WILL FEEL ANY PRESSURE LIKE THAT.
That roughly translates to “I will not have conflicts of interest because I will not have conflicts of interest.” I know that I feel better. That kind of evasion continued during questions by Senator Sanders of Vermont who asked her how much money her family had donated to Republican candidates over time, an amount she claimed not to know…but Senator Sanders did:
I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but I doubt that I would forget the exact number if I ever gave $200 million to anyone or anything. DeVos also went on to counter Senator Sanders’ questions about making tuition free at public universities and colleges by saying that “nothing is free.” This is true – it takes approximately $200 million to buy state legislatures and Senators, for example.
Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey tried to pin down the nominee on whether or not she would uphold current guidance on Title IX that relates to sexual assault on college campuses. He got nowhere on that as did Senator Murray who later tried to pin DeVos down a second time on the issue, which is germane given that the nominee has donated $10,000 to an advocacy group that is specifically trying to overturn the Obama administration guidelines and make it more difficult for victims of sexual assault on college campuses to get justice. DeVos basically gaslighted Senator Casey by saying her “mom’s heart was really piqued on this issue” right before the Senator reminded her of her donations. She also danced around the record of the charter school environment in Michigan that she and her donations helped create when questioned by Senator Bennet of Colorado, going so far as to call reports of the lack of accountability “fake news.” It’s not, by the way. It is extremely well documented. Senator Whitehouse of Rhode Island followed this by schooling the nominee on legacy costs that accrue to school districts when charter school students take funding with them but leave behind the same costs in place. He also asked DeVos if, given her history of donations and participation in organizations that deny climate change, she would make certain that the department will resist efforts to include “junk science” into school curricula. Her answer?
IT IS PRETTY CLEAR IS THAT THE EXPECTATION IS SCIENCE IS TAUGHT IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS. I SUPPORT THE TEACHING OF GREAT SCIENCE AND ESPECIALLY SCIENCE THAT ALLOWS STUDENTS TO EXERCISE CRITICAL THINKING AND TO REALLY DISCOVER AND EXAMINE IN NEW WAYS. SCIENCE SHOULD BE SUPPORTED AT ALL LEVELS.
In case you didn’t know that is perilously similar to the kind of “teach the controversy” nonsense propagated by Creationists when trying to shoehorn their way into legitimate science classrooms on subjects that are not controversial to scientists.
Senator Warren tried to pin down DeVos on how she will use the tools of the office to make certain that students in higher education are not being subjected to waste, fraud, and abuse. Once again, DeVos refused to commit to anything more than reviewing the issue:
DEVOS: I WANT TO MAKE SURE WE DON’T HAVE PROBLEMS WITH THAT AS WELL. IF CONFIRMED, I WILL WORK DILIGENTLY TO CONFIRM WE ARE ADDRESSING ANY OF THOSE ISSUES.
SEN. WARREN: WHAT SUGGESTION DO YOU MAKE? IT TURNS OUT MANY ROLES THAT ARE ALREADY WRITTEN, ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS ENFORCE THEM. WHAT I WANT TO KNOW IS, WHAT YOU COMMIT TO ENFORCING THESE RULES TO ENSURE THAT NO CAREER COLLEGE RECEIVES FEDERAL FUNDS UNLESS THEY CAN PROVE THEY ARE ACTUALLY PREPARING STUDENTS FOR GAINFUL EMPLOYMENT AND NOT CHEATING THEM.
DEVOS: I WILL COMMIT TO ENSURING THAT INSTITUTIONS WHICH RECEIVED FEDERAL FUNDS ARE ACTUALLY SERVING THEIR STUDENTS WELL.
SEN. WARREN: SO YOU WILL ENFORCE THE GAINFUL EMPLOYMENT RULE TO MAKE SURE THAT THESE CAREER COLLEGES ARE NOT CHEATING STUDENTS?
DEVOS: WE WILL CERTAINLY REVIEW THAT RULE.
SEN. WARREN: YOU WILL NOT COMMIT TO ENFORCE IT?
DEVOS: AND SEE THAT IT IS ACTUALLY ACHIEVING WHAT THE INTENTIONS ARE.
SEN. WARREN: I DON’T UNDERSTAND ABOUT REVIEWING IT. WE TALKED ABOUT THIS IN MY OFFICE. THERE ARE ALREADY RULES IN PLACE TO STOP WASTE, FRAUD, AND ABUSE, AND I AM NOT SURE HOW YOU CANNOT BE — SWINDLERS AND CROOKS ARE OUT THERE DOING BACK FLIPS WHEN THEY HEAR AN ANSWER LIKE THIS. IF CONFIRMED, YOU WILL BE THE COP ON THE BEAT. YOU CANNOT COMMIT TO USE THE TOOLS THAT ARE ALREADY AVAILABLE TO YOU IN THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, BUT I DON’T SEE HOW YOU COULD BE THE SECRETARY OF EDUCATION.
DeVos’ testimony turned away from evasive to and plowed directly into breathtakingly ignorant in two astonishing exchanges. In the first, Senator Franken of Minnesota asked the nominee about her opinion on measuring performance based on proficiency or on growth, and it was quickly evident that she did not have the faintest clue what he was talking about:
SEN FRANKEN: WHEN I FIRST GOT IN THE SENATE IN 2009, I HAD A ROUNDTABLE OF PRINCIPALS IN MINNESOTA. HE SAID, WE THINK OF THE NCLB TEST AS AUTOPSIES. I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT HE MEANT. THE STUDENTS TAKE THE TEST IN APRIL, THEY GET THE RESULTS IN LATE JUNE. THE TEACHERS CANNOT USE THE TEST RESULTS TO INFORM THEIR INSTRUCTION. I SAW THAT IN MINNESOTA, THE MAJORITY OF THE SCHOOLS WERE TAKING A COMPUTER ADAPTIVE TEST, A COMPUTER TEST WHERE YOU GET THE RESULTS RIGHT AWAY, AND ADAPTIVE SO YOU CAN MEASURE OUTSIDE THE GRADE LEVEL. THIS BRINGS ME TO THE ISSUE OF PROFICIENCY, WHICH THE SENATOR CITED, VERSUS GROWTH. I WOULD LIKE YOUR VIEWS ON THE RELATIVE ADVANTAGE OF ASSESSMENTS AND USING THEM TO MEASURE PROFICIENCY OR GROWTH.
DEVOS: I THINK IF I AM UNDERSTANDING YOUR QUESTION CORRECTLY AROUND PROFICIENCY, I WOULD CORRELATE IT TO COMPETENCY AND MASTERY, SO EACH STUDENT IS MEASURED ACCORDING TO THE ADVANCEMENTS THEY ARE MAKING IN EACH SUBJECT AREA.
SEN. FRANKEN: THAT’S GROWTH. THAT’S NOT PROFICIENCY. IN OTHER WORDS, THE GROWTH THEY ARE MAKING IS NOT GROWTH. THE PROFICIENCY IS AN ARBITRARY STANDARD.
DEVOS: PROFICIENCY IS IF THEY HAVE REACHED A THIRD GRADE LEVEL FOR READING, ETC.
SEN. FRANKEN: I’M TALKING ABOUT THE DEBATE BETWEEN PROFICIENCY AND GROWTH, WHAT YOUR THOUGHTS ARE ON THAT.
DEVOS: I WAS JUST ASKING THE CLARIFY, THEN –
SEN. FRANKEN: THIS IS A SUBJECT THAT HAS BEEN DEBATED IN THE EDUCATION COMMUNITY FOR YEARS.
Later, Senator Kaine of Virginia tried to pin down DeVos on whether or not all schools which take public money – fully public or charter – should be accountable to the same laws. She danced around this as well:
SENATOR KAINE: DO YOU THINK — DO YOU THINK SCHOOLS THAT RECEIVE GOVERNMENT FUNDING SAID MEET THE SAME OUTCOME STANDARDS?
MRS. DEVOS: ALL SCHOOLS THAT RECEIVE FUNDING SHOULD BE ACCOUNTABLE.
SENATOR KAINE: THE SAME STANDARDS?
MRS. DEVOS: YES. ALTHOUGH YOU HAVE DIFFERENT ACCOUNTABILITY STANDARDS BETWEEN TRADITIONAL PUBLIC SCHOOLS AND CHARTER SCHOOLS.
SENATOR KAINE: I’M VERY INTERESTED IN THIS. PUBLIC CHARTER OR PRIVATE SCHOOLS, K-12, THEY SHOULD MEET THE SAME ACCOUNTABILITY STANDARDS.
MRS. DEVOS: YES. PARENTS SHOULD HAVE THE INFORMATION, FIRST AND FOREMOST.
SENATOR KAINE: WOULD YOU AGREE ON WILL YOU INSIST ON EQUAL ACCOUNTABILITY ON ANY EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM THAT RECEIVES FEDERAL FUNDING?
MRS. DEVOS: I SUPPORT ACCOUNTABILITY.
SENATOR KAINE: IS THAT A YES OR NO?
MRS. DEVOS: THAT IS A “I SUPPORT ACCOUNTABILITY.”
The difference between supporting “accountability” and supporting “equal accountability” is the difference between having schools that are allowed to deny students services that they do not wish to provide and schools that can do no such thing — or, if you were, the difference between a lot of charter schools and public schools. The exchange went completely off the rails, however, when DeVos apparently did not know that there is a FEDERAL law for students with disabilities (actually, there are several) and that her role as Secretary of Education would include overseeing how it is implemented across the country:
SENATOR KAINE: SHOULD ALL SCHOOLS BE REQUIRED TO MEET THE REQUIREMENTS OF THE STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES ACT.
MRS. DEVOS: I THINK THEY ALREADY ARE.
KAINE: I’M ASKING YOU A SHOULD QUESTION. SHOULD ALL SCHOOLS THAT RECEIVE TAXPAYER FUNDING BE REQUIRED TO MEET THE REQUIREMENTS OF THE INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES AND EDUCATION.
MRS. DEVOS: I THINK THAT IS A MATTER BETTER LEFT TO THE STATES.
SENATOR KAINE: SOME STATES MIGHT BE GOOD, OTHER STATE MIGHT NOT BE SO GOOD, AND THEN PEOPLE CAN MOVE AROUND THE COUNTRY?
MRS. DEVOS: I THINK THAT IS AN ISSUE BEST LEFT TO THE STATES.
SENATOR KAINE: WHAT ABOUT THE FEDERAL REQUIREMENT? INDIVIDUALS WITH EDUCATION — INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES EDUCATION ACT. LET’S LIMIT IT TO FEDERAL FUNDING. SHOULD THEY BE REQUIRED TO FOLLOW FEDERAL LAW?
Senator Hassan of New Hampshire looped back to this question a bit later:
SENATOR HASSAN: I WANT TO GO BACK TO THE INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES IN EDUCATION LAW. THAT IS A FEDERAL LAW.
MRS. DEVOS: FEDERAL LAW MUST BE FOLLOWED WHERE FEDERAL DOLLARS ARE IN PLAY.
SENATOR HASSAN: WERE YOU UNAWARE THAT IT IS A FEDERAL LAW?
MRS. DEVOS: I MAY HAVE CONFUSED IT.
That deserves to be viewed:
“I may have confused it.” I hope to heaven that does not become the epitaph of American public education.
I have no other word for this: breathtaking. Betsy DeVos’ lack of knowledge on fundamental issues of great importance to the nation’s public schools is breathtaking. The issue of proficiency versus growth as a measure of educational outcomes is fundamental to education policy across the country. It has been debated for decades, and since the passage of No Child Left Behind, it has been front and center in our policy debates and oversight of education. No school administrator who has had to report on Adequate Yearly Progress and no school teacher who has worked in a state where growth scores have been folded into teacher evaluations is unaware of this issue, but the nominee for Secretary of Education is. The least prepared and most incompetent school superintendent in the entire country knows what the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act is within three days of settling into the job. There is literally no other choice given how important and complex compliance with the law can be. But the nominee for Secretary of Education “may have confused it”? With what, exactly?
The grizzly bear comment has been worth a lot of memes, some of them downright funny. Heck, here are two:
But beyond that laugh, we have a likely-t0-be-confirmed nominee who tells us to “trust” that her vast fortune and holdings will not present a conflict of interest, who will not commit to preserving public education as fully public, who will not commit to upholding protections from sexual harassment and assault on college campuses (and who has donated to a group that wants to tear down those protections), who will not commit to full enforcing existing protections against fraud and abuse in higher education lending and practices, and who appears entirely unaware of one of the central debates in education policy and one of the most important pieces of federal education law passed in the past half century.
But, good news for DeVos – she has the full throated support of New York City charter school magnate and lightening rod of self-inflicted damage, Eva Moskowitz:
Given Moskowitz’s record to date, this roughly translates to: Betsy DeVos is going to shovel as much public money as possible into my hands without holding me accountable for any of it.
Roll up the sleeves, public school advocates. We’re gonna have to fight like hell.