Michael Busch

Betsy Devos has been confirmed as Secretary of Education by the U.S. Senate. Her nomination was the most bitterly contested of Donald Trump’s cabinet selections, and a lightning rod that galvanized public resistance across the country. From New York to Alaska, people flooded the offices of their elected officials with phone calls, emails, petitions, tweets and faxes calling on the Senate to reject DeVos out of hand. 

The pressure worked, to an extent: two Republicans defected from their party and voted against the nomination. In the end, though, it wasn’t enough. A 50-50 split in the Senate was broken by Vice President Mike Pence, who cast his vote in support of the president’s nominee. 

DeVos may have won the job, but resistance to her cabinet selection is unlikely to fade away. People are fired up. There’s general consternation at the fact that DeVos lacks any relevant qualifications for the position. Her failure to demonstrate basic comprehension of fundamental debates in education during Senate confirmation hearings has inspired deep concern, as has her apparent ignorance of the law as it relates to schools. 

Perhaps most importantly, Americans across the country are voicing their outrage at her radical policy agenda. This isn’t a purely partisan response. Even education reform advocates on the right are speaking out against DeVos’ vision for American education, and actively pressured the Senate to reject her nomination. 

Continued opposition to DeVos spells trouble for the Trump administration. The combination of her inexperience, incompetence and the unusually high level of disapproval she provokes offers the perfect ingredients for dealing Trump an embarrassing defeat down the road—perhaps sooner than you think. 

While DeVos may be singularly unqualified for her new position, she isn’t entirely without precedent. Consider the case of Cathie Black. In late 2010, Black—formerly chairwoman of Hearst Magazines—was appointed Chancellor of the New City Department of Education by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. 

Like DeVos, Black summoned a fierce storm of opposition. Her credentials were nowhere in evidence, she lacked a basic understanding of the issues and mechanics of public education, and she performed terribly in public. These shortcomings quickly inspired resistance from parents, teachers and her own department, which made things so contentious that she didn’t survive her first one hundred days on the job. 

The brief history of Cathie Black’s time at New York City’s Department of Education offers lessons for those looking to continue the fight against DeVos. The first is this: inexperience matters. From the start, Black’s lack of qualifications portended calamity. She had never taught and, having spent her entire career in private publishing, boasted no experience in education or public administration. 

Possessing none of the requirements for the job, Black embarrassingly had to request a special waver from New York State overriding the rules governing the appointment of chancellor, and was appointed a special adviser to help manage her portfolio of responsibility and decision making. It was a disaster.  

Black’s incompetence took a heavy toll on her department. Aides and advisers spent time and energy trying to get their chief up to speed on basic elements of the job, compensating for her inability to function effectively, and protecting her from the public spotlight. In a particularly embarrassing incident, Black was asked a question about charter schools at an open meeting with school officials. 

According to the New York Times, “As she leaned forward to answer, the general counsel at the Education Department nearly pushed her aside as he seized the microphone and replied on her behalf.” More generally, morale dipped to astonishing lows. Within a few months of her appointment, nearly half of the city’s top education officials had resigned their posts.  

While the response to DeVos may not be as dramatic, her presence in Washington will have negative effects. Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, currently Research Professor of Education at New York University and our country’s leading historian of education, believes that DeVos won’t find a welcome home at the Department of Education.

“Having worked in the Department of Education in the 1990s,” Ravitch told me, “I can tell you that they regard political appointees as the hired help—here today, gone tomorrow. They will put their heads down and do what they have to do. But they will do it without enthusiasm and without respect for a dilettante with so little knowledge of the department and its programs.”

DeVos’ team will also be forced to devote considerable time to making sure she understands the broad contours of education policy and law beyond her department and its programs. DeVos shocked observers during confirmation hearings last month with the apparent depths of her ignorance of the field. When Senator Al Franken pressed DeVos to explain her position on the value of testing as a tool for measuring proficiency or growth, she stumbled in response. 

“I think,” she said, “if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so that each student is measured according to the advancement they’re making in each subject area.” “Well, that’s growth. That’s not proficiency,” Franken shot back.

Later in the same hearing, a testy exchange with Senator Tim Kaine revealed DeVos’ flimsy grasp on other important issues, as well. When questioned about federal law pertaining to students with disabilities, DeVos tossed a word salad that both avoided the issue directly, and suggested confusion about the extent of states’ rights. The unusually short time allotted to each senator for questions—just five minutes—prevented Kaine from digging in further. 

But Senator Maggie Hassan returned to the point shortly thereafter, and pressed DeVos to clarify her position. “Were you unaware when I just asked you bout the IDEA that it was a federal law?,” Hassan asked at one point. “I may have confused it,” DeVos replied meekly. 

These sorts of episodes ought to terrify DeVos’ handlers, and with good reason. Consider Cathie Black again. Her brief stint in the Bloomberg administration was defined by routine PR debacles that ultimately destroyed her tenure as chancellor and threatened the mayor’s popularity. 

Black’s reckless public performances ensured non-stop outrage. For example, she blamed overcrowding in classrooms on parents, asking “Could we just have some birth control for a while?” She compared her role as chancellor to the title character in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, who had to make horrible decisions in Auschwitz. And she antagonized already angry parents at a public meeting on school closures with mocking imitations of their booing and protests.  

While much of the blame can be chalked up to Black’s abrasive personality, the lesson with respect to DeVos is clear: the more she’s out in public, the more opportunities there are for things to go wrong. And Devos will be out in public quite a bit. During confirmation hearings and afterwards, a number of public officials and union leaders invited DeVos to visit local school districts and convene public discussions on issues like the role of guns in schools. 

To be sure, DeVos will avoid encounters where questions concerning her competency can be resurrected and reengaged. But she will be forced to undertake a major damage control campaign across the country, reassuring school leaders, parents and teachers of her best intentions and plans for the future. And she’ll need to do so without embarrassing herself or provoking more dissent.

It’s going to be a hard sell. DeVos has ambitious designs for the demolition of public schooling across the country. The ideas driving this agenda go well beyond the debate over charter schools. “The road has already been cleared of many of the objections to privatization,” says Deborah Meier, a MacArthur genius and public school educator, "and constitutes a serious blow to an already endangered democracy."

“And it is being confused too often with charters—which have at times acted like half-way private and half-way public houses. Her straight out aim of privatization,” Meier notes, “including religious schools, is a sharp departure and I can see ways in which it could quickly undermine public institutions in ways that will be hard for Congress to undo.” 

Until recently, DeVos made no secret of her preference for religious schools over traditional public schools, and even charters. She famously spelled out her intention to use education as a tool “to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom,” and has financially supported organizations seeking to radically expand voucher programs that redirect public monies into private religious schools. In this, DeVos’ plans mirror “the vision” of Donald Trump. 

The president’s education platform during the election called for $20 billion grants to states that offered school choice programs featuring private schools, along with magnet schools and charters, and offered incentives of an additional $12,000 per student for states that robustly fund expanding school choice programs. 

DeVos’ ability to realize Trump’s vision, however, or any other, will necessarily be constrained as Secretary of Education. “Because control of education rests largely with state governments,” notes Pedro Noguera, Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University and a leading expert on school policy, “the damage that can be done by the Trump administration will in all likelihood be limited.” 

That said, Noguera “wouldn’t underestimate the harm that can be wrought. Public education is under attack in states like Indiana, Kansas and most of the south (with the notable exception of Texas), because of governors who have been hostile to urban school districts and teacher unions generally. With an ally like DeVos in Washington,” Noguera told me, “these states will be under no pressure to address the inequality in learning opportunities that are pervasive throughout the United States.”

The possible ramifications of DeVos’ tenure could extend well beyond school choice. As Noguera points out, “The federal role in education may be limited but is very important. The federal government must monitor civil rights statutes particularly related to special education, the education of non-English speakers and racial integration.” 

“The danger with appointing someone with so little knowledge and experience like DeVos,” Noguera argues, “is that they will not know how to provide leadership on these critical issues. Because her primary concern has been expanding choice, she may very well focus entirely on these issues at the expense of others.”

That is, if she survives her first several months in office. DeVos will have a difficult time, as she tours the country, explaining to those hardest hit by her policy prescriptions—families in poor urban school districts and rural areas—how school choice of any kind will help their kids. These conversations could have direct effects on Trump’s ability to govern. Rural voters, the base of the president’s popularity, are also among the most dependent Americans on public education. 

If she is unable to credibly justify the sharpening contradictions that school choice presents to families without any choice but public schools, support will dwindle. And thanks to the widespread opposition activated by her nomination, DeVos—suddenly a high-profile cabinet member—could become another serious liability to the White House.

The nomination process was immensely taxing for the Republicans. Stiff public and political resistance to DeVos forced them to go to the mat for a candidate that no one really wanted or thinks is qualified for the job, and they did so in unprecedented ways. Pence’s tie-breaking vote marks the first time in American history a Vice President had to intervene to ensure a cabinet vote for their party. 

The vote is embarrassing in other ways, too. DeVos is a simple case of pay for play. This bald-faced corruption offered another source of constituent outrage across the country and is unlikely to be forgotten in the midterm elections. For some political vulnerable Senators, this is just two short years away. 

What’s more, there’s little to suggest that Trump would robustly defend DeVos if her tenure proves cumbersome. While the president appears tight with her brother Erik Prince, founder of the Blackwater mercenary group that came to prominence during the Iraq War, he seems less interested in DeVos. As he signed the nomination papers for proposed cabinet members on his first day in office, Trump spoke kind words about each. 

When he got to DeVos, Trump said, “Ah, Betsy. Education, right?” For her part, DeVos has only recently come to embrace Trump, having called him an “interloper” during the primary, and saying that he did “not represent the Republican Party.” 
The Secretary of Education is traditionally one of the more anonymous members of any president’s cabinet. Trump’s education secretary is suddenly one of the most unpopular people in America. Her vulnerabilities will become his, and open a vulnerable target of attack for the opposition. 

Indeed, just because DeVos has been confirmed as Secretary of Education doesn’t mean she’ll be there for long. As the example of Cathie Black demonstrates, the combination of inexperience, incompetence, plummeting popularity and political pressure can force education officials to exit office early. 

The fact that parents, teachers and activists across the country continue mobilizing against DeVos even when her confirmation was assured suggests that the new Secretary of Education faces a long road ahead. Or perhaps it will be short. If anyone approximates an historical echo of Cathie Black, it’s Betsy DeVos. 

Michael Busch is Senior Editor of Warscapes Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch.