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Monday, January 23, 2017

The Betsy DeVos Hearing Was an Insult to Democracy

From Esquire Magazine

By Charles P. Pierce
January 18, 2017

"It was low, insulting burlesque and a revolting dumbshow of the arrogance of monied ignorance. I think we're all going to have to get used to that kind of thing."



It was not a hearing. It was the mere burlesque of a hearing, rendered meaningless by a preposterously accelerated process that rendered all questioning perfunctory and that left all cheap evasions hanging in the air of the committee room the way cigarette smoke used to canopy the proceedings back in the day.

You would not hire a gardener through the process by which Betsy DeVos likely is going to become the Secretary of Education. A public school system wouldn't hire her to work the cafeteria line at lunch. It was appalling. It was unnerving. It was a grotesque of how an evolved democracy should operate. It was business as usual these days and it likely isn't going to matter a damn.

As nearly as I can tell, the nominees for the president-elect's Cabinet fall into several different categories. There are the people you'd pretty much expect from any Republican administration. (James Mattis, Michael Flynn, Ryan Zinke). There are the people who understand the mission of their departments and have spent their lives undermining it. (Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Rick Perry at Energy, Andrew Puzder at Labor).

And, there are the people who are fundamentally clueless about the general nature of public service. (Rex Tillerson at State.) On Tuesday night, DeVos demonstrated that she is that rarest of Trump administration fauna: Someone who fits capably into all three categories.

She and her family and the Amway gozillions they control have been a bottomless reservoir for the dark money that is the engine behind a dozen different conservative fetish objects, from right-to-work laws, to gutting campaign finance regulations, to injecting splinter Protestantism into every part of the political commons. So, she's pretty much what you'd expect from any Republican administration. She understands the mission of the Department of Education and truly dislikes it.

And, as was graphically demonstrated even in the truncated questioning Tuesday night, she doesn't know enough about education policy to feed to your guppies.


This was most clearly demonstrated during an exchange with Senator Al Franken. Franken asked her about the distinction in education between proficiency and growth. Then, this happened.

Franken: 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.

Franken: That's growth. That's not proficiency. In other words, the growth they are making is not growth. Proficiency is an arbitrary standard.

Devos: Proficiency is if they have reached a third grade level for reading, etc.

(Editor's Note: At this point, the nominee was further at sea than Magellan ever was. We continue.)

Franken: I'm talking about the debate between proficiency in growth, what your thoughts on that?

DeVos: I was just asking the senator to clarify…

Franken: This is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years. I have advocated growth as the chairman, and every member of this committee knows, because with proficiency teachers ignore the kids of the top who are not going to fall below proficiency, and they ignore the kid at the bottom who they know will never get to proficiency. I have been an advocate for growth.

But it surprises me that you don't know this issue, and Mr. Chairman, I think this is a good reason for us to have more questions. This is a very important subject -- education, our kids' education. I think we are selling our kids short by not being able to have a debate on it.

As I may have mentioned, my father was a teacher and an administrator in the public high schools for over 35 years. He explained the essential difference between proficiency and growth to me 40 years ago. That a prospective Secretary of Education hadn't the faintest idea what Franken was talking about should have been enough to make the committee adjourn itself in helpless laughter.

But there were even more risible moments to come. DeVos clumsily dodged every question about her family's financing of the dingier segments of the conservative movement. Rookie senator Maggie Hassan from New Hampshire doggedly pursued a $5 million donation made by a foundation ostensibly run by DeVos' mother to Focus on the Family, the anti-gay extremist chop-shop that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a hate group.

Hassan: There is a foundation named for your parents, correct?

DeVos: My mother's foundation.

Hassan: And you sit on the board?

DeVos: I do not.

Hassan: So when it made the $5 million donation to Focus on the Family, you did not know anything about it?

DeVos: My mother makes the donations.

(Later, Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, came back to that issue.)

Murray: I want to clarify the issue on whether or not you are on the board of your mother's foundation. I have [IRS Form] 1990 through 2013 where you are listed as vice president and a board member. was that a mistake on your part?

DeVos: That was a clerical error. I have never made decisions on my mother's behalf.

Good god.

The whole hearing was beyond bizarre. I believe that the hearing into the nomination of Mike Pompeo to run the CIA was less covert than this one was. It started at five in the evening. Committee chairman Lamar Alexander locked the committee into a one round of questioning in which the members each had five minutes. This meant that most of the Republicans gave little five-minute addresses on the greatness of Betsy DeVos, Civil Rights icon and Concerned Mom. 
Meanwhile, the Democrats each spent some of their time pleading for another round of questioning.

The strategy of putting DeVos' nomination on a rocket sled so as to avoid exposing too much of her abysmal lack of qualifications was so obvious as to be insulting.

She had two essential dodges. The first one was that she was looking forward to working with the Congress. DeVos ducked into this bomb shelter when Senator Professor Warren peppered her with questions about what personal or professional experience she had with federal student loans. (Spoiler: None. But she did know "some people" who had Pell Grants.)

The second dodge was that she would "leave things to the states."

Among other things she would leave to the states was whether or not states should abide by the Individual With Disabilities Education Act. This is an argument that did not succeed at Gettysburg, and neither did it succeed in the committee room.

Hassan, who has a son with cerebral palsy who went through the public school system in her town, produced a very impressive "I am not buying an ounce of this crapola" face, and Tim Kaine, a senator who achieved some prominence last summer, pinned DeVos to the wall.

Kaine: I'm asking you a question. Should all schools that receive taxpayer funding be required to meet the requirements of individuals…

DeVos: I think that is a matter better left to the states.

Kaine: Some states might be good, other state might not be so good, and then people can move around the country?

DeVos: I think that is an issue best left to the states.

Kaine: What about the federal requirement? Let's limit it to federal funding. Should they be required to follow federal law?

DeVos: There are many parents who are happy with the program there.

But the piece de resistance, now famous in song and story and on YouTube, came when Christopher Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, tried to get a straight answer on whether or not DeVos was in favor of firearms in the public schools. She tried the looking-forward-to-working-with-you dodge. Ultimately, she moved on to leaving-things-to-the-states. Hilarity ensued.

Murphy: Do you think guns have any place in or around schools?

DeVos: That is best left to locales and states to decide. If the underlying question…

Murphy: You can't say definitively today that guns shouldn't be in schools?

DeVos: I will refer back to Senator [Mike} Enzi and the school he was talking about in Wyoming. I think probably there, I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.

"Potential grizzlies"? Sorry, I got nothing.

Simply put, Betsy DeVos has been nominated to be Secretary of Education because she married into the Amway money and spread it around to enough Republican politicians to get them elected so that they would carry out DeVos family enterprise of turning public education over to private profiteers and turning the political commons into a theocratic yard sale open to the highest bidder. She and her family contributed substantial sums to 10 of the 12 Republicans who were sitting on the committee that was vetting her Tuesday night.

It was low, insulting burlesque and a revolting dumbshow of the arrogance of monied ignorance. I think we're all going to have to get used to that kind of thing.

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