President Donald Trump's pugnacious and divisive inaugural address confirmed that there are going to be many, many things to fear over the next four years. But his
choice of Betsy DeVos for secretary of education is not one of them.
Despite what you may have heard from hyperventilating liberals, DeVos is among Trump's more sober Cabinet choices. She never joined his cheerleading squad like Housing and Urban Development nominee Ben Carson. And she was certainly not part of his inner circle hatching plans to court white voters by demonizing immigrants and minorities, like Jeff Sessions, Trump's pick for attorney general. In fact, she declared relatively early that Trump did not "represent the Republican Party" and never retracted that statement.
Yet Democrats are treating her nomination like the ultimate scandal — simply because she is an ardent proponent of school choice. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) seemingly avoided even shaking her hand. But if Democrats can't do business with DeVos, then is there any intellectual opponent with whom they can?
Now, to be sure, DeVos did not distinguish herself during her confirmation hearing with her knowledge of the finer points of education policy (she didn't seem to know about the debate between proficiency and growth metrics to measure student performance, for one thing). She was often tongue-tied and crumbled under questioning. But that's at least partly because Democratic senators came turbo-charged to play gotcha.
DeVos' final confirmation vote has been delayed to Jan. 31 pending a full ethics review. However, it is highly unlikely that she won't get confirmed given that she needs only a simple majority in the Senate. So Democrats should have used this occasion to understand and engage her views honestly. Instead they decided to grandstand.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) demanded to know if she had advocated conversion therapy for gays. She hasn't — so what was the point of this question except to portray her as a religious zealot hell-bent on bringing her "overtly Christian agenda to Washington" — as per a 20-page screed by Politico — and besmirch her passion for school choice as a ploy to turn over schools to Christian churches? Evidently, it did not occur to Sen. Franken that her voucher plan would empower secular, Muslim, and Buddhist parents — really, parents of every religious persuasion — just as much as Christian ones.
Likewise, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) all but accused DeVos of buying her way to the secretary's position. "Do you think that if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars in contributions, that you would be sitting here today?," he asked — as if her advocacy of school choice was just a ruse to buy political influence rather than the other way around.
Not to be outdone, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) asked her if guns should be allowed in schools — never mind that a gun ban within 1,000 feet of a school has existed since 1996 and yet couldn't prevent the Newton massacre in his state. It was a pointless question given that an education secretary can't unilaterally overturn the ban and isn't responsible for enforcing it. DeVos' answer — that the matter is probably best left to local schools able to make individualized assessment of threat levels — was essentially correct, even if her grizzly bear example was somewhat clumsy. But why did Murphy feel the need to ask this question at all? No doubt to indulge his own anti-gun hobbyhorse! But, hey, DeVos is the ideologue.
And then there was Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who demanded that DeVos pledge that she wouldn't "cut a penny from public education" or use her perch at the department to privatize public schools. DeVos assured her that she would support all great schools, including public ones — which implied that failing ones may be shut down. This, too, was a perfectly sensible response that should be cheered by anyone interested in children instead of teachers' unions. But not Murray, who also wasn't placated by DeVos' guarantee that she wouldn't force states to adopt voucher programs — either through federal regulations or legislation. Instead, DeVos said, states should get to decide whether they want to embrace private school choice. Murray's response? A pout: "I take that as not be willing to commit to not privatizing public schools or cutting money from education."
What was most galling about the confirmation charade was the conceit of Murray and her gang that their positions are based on hard evidence and science while DeVos' are simply a reflection of her ideological fanaticism. But the fact of the matter is that there are two education paradigms in this country — the old one that favors public accountability via the political process and the new one that favors parental accountability via the market process. Democrats are wedded to the first one for ideological reasons — despite its 200-year history of failing poor kids — and simply won't give the second a chance. That's why they also declared war on DeVos for shielding Detroit's charter schools from being taken over by politicians. Incidentally, these charters, while far from perfect, have shown much better results than comparable public schools, as three independent studies, including by Stanford's CREDO, have shown.
If the DeVos confirmation hearing exposed anything at all, it is that the Democratic Party is now the Dogmatic Party. And that will not position it to fight the genuine threats to vulnerable minorities that the Trump presidency will almost certainly bring.
This column originally appeared in The Week
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