Way back in 2017, which now seems like a fever dream, Betsy DeVos was by far the biggest joke of the Trump administration’s proposed cabinet members. A devout Christian and a supporter of school choice, voucher programs, and charter schools, DeVos was most contested among Democrats. But even relatively nonpartisan Americans took umbrage with a seemingly unqualified billionaire — who had, prior to her position as Secretary of Education, served as chairwoman as the Windquest Group and who was the chief investor of a medically questionable group of neurotherapy centers — assuming the role of the country’s decision-maker on education policy.
After a contentious Senate confirmation hearing, in January of 2017, DeVos was confirmed, with a vote down party lines.
Over the course of the past three years, cabinet members have dropped off like flies, but DeVos has remained, a lone soldier, continuing to do the president’s bidding. Yet she was never up to the task, and most of us knew that her lack of experience, fundamental lack of knowledge when it came to public education, and overall lack of empathy for American students would eventually backfire. Today, as we grapple with what is likely the most pressing issue facing American students and teachers in this century — how to navigate schooling in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic — we leave the future in the hands of a useful idiot.
Over the weekend, Secretary DeVos insisted that kids will need to go back to school this fall, irrespective of the pandemic, which is getting worse by the day in the United States, since the federal government has taken no overarching action to contain it. She made this announcement even as governors held off on making any autonomous decisions about how their own states will operate. In my state, New York, an early hotbed for Covid-19, where numbers demonstrated the devastation and loss that this disease can create, Governor Andrew Cuomo has chosen not to offer a decision regarding the reopening of schools until August.
Other states, like New Jersey, have offered adapted schedule models, with students attending classes on alternate days, or alternate weeks, in order to thin out classrooms and to keep both students and teachers protected. All across the country, local legislators, parents, teachers, and administrators are thinking hard about what comes next, because there are no easy choices. Parents have to go back to work. Students and teachers have to be protected from a virus that is exposing the United States’ fundamental weaknesses.
And yet, the Secretary of Education, who has no stake in the game — she herself is no true advocate for public education, after all — wants to open up schools, potentially exposing hundreds of thousands to the virus. If we believed that this one cabinet appointment was unimportant, and that no true damage could come from putting a stooge in a position of power because no lives would be sacrificed as a result — oh, how wrong we were. Students, their parents and anyone else who encounters people who go to public schools are at DeVos’ mercy now, which is what happens when you allow the wrong person to take up a position, even if it seems “harmless” at the time.
Betsy DeVos was never qualified to be the Secretary of Education, but she was confirmed anyway — and as the cabinet has withered away, revealing cracks in Trump’s foundation as wide as the Grand Canyon, she has somehow held her ground. But don’t be fooled by DeVos’ schoolmarm glasses, or by the fact that she has weathered the cabinet’s chaotic storm. The fact that DeVos remains and that she stands before us now, the ruling matriarch as we decide what’s sane in a moment of insanity, is a danger to every parent, student, and teacher in the United States. Indeed, Betsy DeVos has become a danger to everybody.