By Peter Greene
December 30, 2016
The nomination of Betsy DeVos to the post of Secretary of Education is such a bad choice that we don’t even have to talk about actual policy ideas to understand how unsuited she is for the position.
John King was a lousy choice for Secretary of Education. But John King has worked in a classroom with students and run a school, even if the classroom and school were charters. John King has held a statewide post in government as head of education in New York State. He doesn’t appear to have been very successful at any of these jobs — but he has at least been exposed to what happens on all three levels so that he has at least a vague working knowledge of what goes on in those areas. He even attended public school as a child.
Betsy DeVos has none of those qualifications. She has never been a public school student and never worked as a teacher, administrator or state level education bureaucrat. Betsy DeVos is less qualified than John King.
Arne Duncan was a barely qualified choice for Secretary of Education. But Arne Duncan had been responsible for a major urban school system, so he had at least some vague notion of what happens in a public school system. He had political connections not because he had money to throw around, but because he was a good and loyal friend to people with bigger political profiles. Hell, he was a good basketball player, meaning he was at least exposed to the concept of teamwork and the idea of working hard to achieve a goal.
Betsy DeVos has never run an organization as sprawling and varied as an urban school district, and has no experience with any such educational system. Betsy DeVos is less qualified than Arne Duncan.
Eva Moskowitz was a terrible choice for Secretary of Education. But Eva Moskowitz built a school-flavored business from the ground up, so she has at least some vague notion of the many moving parts involved in making a school work. And while Moskowitz is by no means wealth-impaired, she has showed political savvy and an ability to make friends in high places to get her own way.
Betsy DeVos has no experience in the inner workings of a school or a business, and certainly not an organization that wants to be both. And she only knows one way to build political connections — writing checks. Betsy DeVos is less qualified than Eva Moskowitz.
Michelle Rhee (ex-DC chancellor) was an unspeakably awful choice for Secretary of Education. But like Duncan, she has been in charge of a major urban school district. She has stood in a classroom and tried to teach. And she is experienced at getting other people to invest in her vision and displayed a real gift for generating positive PR, even when she doesn’t deserve it.
Betsy DeVos has never run a school district. She has never taught. And she has never had to convince anyone to back her idea, because she can bankroll it all herself. Nor has she ever displayed any talent for being the public PR-friendly face of anything.
All four of the above terrible, terrible choices for Secretary of Education worked their way up from a poor or middle class background, learning how to sell themselves, start an enterprise, make friends, gather influence, and just generally make their way in the world. Professionally, they have had to learn how to work other people to get what they want.
Betsy DeVos was born rich, married rich, and has never had to build influence or make a case for her own views by any method other than exercising her bank account (a bank account that she never did a lick of work to fill up in the first place).
A Secretary of Education has to build influence, make a case, sell an idea, and do the political work to push across policies. DeVos has never had to do any of these things; and a Secretary of Education cannot build political clout or support by flexing her personal wealth.
DeVos has ideas about education, but she has never done any of the legwork or built understanding about how to implement her ideas beyond writing a check or hiring some people to astroturf support for programs. She has simply bought allies and bankrolled compliance; there is no reason to believe that she knows how to win agreement and cooperation from people who are not financially beholden to her.
If DeVos had not been born rich, if she had not married rich, we would not be having this conversation, and she would not be a person of influence in education. DeVos is one of those masks that money puts on when it wants to walk around and do stuff; without the money, she’s an empty sack with no more importance or influence than a regular citizen, or a teacher.
The four candidates listed above are all lousy choices for the post, and yet all of them have qualifications that DeVos lacks. In fact, before we even start to discuss just how terrible and destructive her ideas about public education are, we should be talking about her complete lack of qualifications to run a federal department.
- She is not familiar with how schools work.
- She is not familiar with how large metropolitan or state systems for education work.
- She is not familiar with how to work with people who are not on her personal payroll.
- Her political experience is running advocacy groups of allies, not building coalitions that include opponents.
She was born at the top, and worked her way to the top.
Even if you think that Betsy DeVos is bang-on correct in her education ideas (I disagree, but let’s skip that for the moment) there is no reason at all to believe that she has any of the tools necessary to succeed as head of the U.S. Department of Education.
Betsy DeVos is supremely unqualified for the post of Secretary of Education, quite possibly the least qualified appointee on the Trump list. The Senate should not approve her appointment.