Trump education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos is slated to begin her confirmation hearings on January 11. Republicans scheduled a hearing for secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson the same day to complicate Democrats’ promise to delay the confirmation of DeVos, Tillerson, and six other cabinet nominees until March, “an unprecedented break with Senate tradition,” says the Washington Post.
“Incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) accused Trump of trying to seat a ‘rigged Cabinet’ of nominees who ‘have made billions off the industries they’d be tasked with regulating,’” the Post says. DeVos is a prime target, but her initial disclosures to satiate Democrats’ claimed financial ethics concerns suggests her potential conflicts of interest lie in another direction.
DeVos doesn’t particularly make money from education. She gives money to education. Since her husband is a billionaire, she’s got lots to give, and to her credit she does. A review of her financial forms reveals that her ethics challenges are less likely (at least so far) in personally benefitting from government favors, but from her pre-existing influence over the Senate that has to confirm her.
Robust Questions Are In the Public’s Interest
DeVos has given tens of thousands of dollars to the campaigns of senators who now are supposed to review her fitness for public office, according to this initial, relatively brief disclosure. In the past five years, which is all the disclosure covers, she’s given $7,800 to Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana), $5,400 to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R—barely—from Alaska), $5,400 to Sen. Todd Young (R-Indiana), and $7,400 to Sen. Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), all of whom sit on the Senate Education Committee that will review her nomination.
That’s nowhere near all. In those five years, among the approximately $5.3 million in campaign donations she disclosed, $114,200 went to the National Republican Senate Committee, $215,000 to the Republican National Committee, $300,000 to the Senate Leadership fund, $160,000 to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, and an annual donation of $25,000 to the Republican Governor’s Association. This starts to make one cynical about all the PR quotes Republican lawmakers have been putting out about DeVos in advance of her hearings.
Given all the DeVos money floating around Washington, how likely are Republican senators to ask her some fair but critical questions about a woman who would oversee some $70 billion in annual public funding and 5,000 public employees? Since hearings these days are already mere reality TV thanks to Borking, that plus the money makes me doubful. The media are likewise more interested in public scandal than public interest, which is probably the sad but sensible reason DeVos is granting no pre-confirmation interviews. Yet another loss for Americans.
So I’ll ask some questions. The public deserves to know what they’re getting out public employees. I do want to know what DeVos thinks about key aspects of her future job, because it will affect my life and my neighbors’ lives, as the Obama administration taught us well. So let me attempt to suggest some skeptical but not gotcha questions for the woman who would be education secretary.
1. Should Government Be Allowed to Surveil American Citizens for Life?
In 2012 the Obama administration used regulations to essentially overturn the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. This essentially erased the law’s privacy protections for students to facilitate federally funded student data systems that already “collect and permanently maintain student records without parental notice, consent, or right to inspect,” as a lawyer friend of mine describes it. Will DeVos reverse these rule changes and enforce the law as written?
Lawmakers and bureaucrats from both parties, as well as technocrats like Bill Gates, are pushing to overturn the federal ban on a “student unit record system.” This would facilitate government surveillance of every U.S. college student, without notice or consent, and point America towards a China-style national birth to death citizen surveillance system. What does DeVos think about the proposal to allow this by removing the ban?
Bonus: Does DeVos believe people have property rights to the data they generate? How should schools and governments respect and secure those property rights for minors?
2. Should the Federal Government Run a School Vouchers Program?
DeVos has rightly won praise for her work at state and local levels to fund initiatives that bring school choice to all families rather than just rich families like hers. Does she think it is appropriate for the federal government to take over states’ work in school choice by starting its own voucher program? If so, given the political realities of centralized power, how does this not merely nationalize education, essentially expanding and locking in Common Core-style education across the country forever?
3. What Will You Do to End Common Core?
Her disclosure form shows DeVos has sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians and organizations that pushed to keep Common Core in states while parents and teachers were revolting against it. Yet it also shows that she has sent money to those that have spoken out against Common Core. DeVos says she opposes the federal government imposing Common Core on states, which is not the same thing as opposing Common Core, an academically mediocre K-12 testing blueprint, but at least that takes out some of its teeth.
Given that she and Trump have publicly stated they wish to “end federalized Common Core,” and that the federal funding that pushed Common Core on states has largely expired, how does DeVos actually plan to carry out this major Trump campaign promise?
4. What Specific Strategies Do You Have for Reducing USED’s Influence on American Life?
Former Education Secretary Bill Bennett, a major Common Core supporter, says DeVos wants to reduce the role of the department she is about to lead. That was also a major campaign promise of Ronald Reagan, under whom Bennett served, but both left it unfulfilled, allowing the department to metastasize into an even bigger boondoggle. Bennett says:
DeVos is a strong supporter of state and local control. She understands that the heavy hand of Washington has imposed layers of costly red tape on our schools, wasting tax dollars on bureaucracy instead of driving improvement in student learning. In picking Betsy DeVos to champion his education agenda, President Trump has shown that he is committed to reducing the power of the federal government over local education policy and decision making.
We’ve heard this sort of thing from politicians and bureaucrats, including Bennett, for decades now. So why should we believe this sort of rhetoric from Trump and DeVos? What concrete steps will she and her department take to make good on yet another promise from Republicans to reduce the federal role in education, all while that department has continued to suffocate American parents and schools by costing states far more money than it provides with no track record of success?
5. Should the Federal Government Force Boys into Girls’ Showers?
Another Obama administration rewrite of the law was its decision that “sex” inside Title IX really means “gender,” giving opportunities for students to sue and governments to bully schools into putting boys and girls into each other’s locker rooms, sports teams, and school trip sleeping quarters. Will DeVos again enforce the law as written, which would repeal these regulations?
Even though Obama’s interpretation contradicts the text of the law and 45 years of its use by all parties involved, Democrats are acting like the rewrite is a done deal, and clutching their pearls at the suggestion that DeVos might actually do what the law their colleagues voted for demands. USED’s Office of Civil Rights has essentially gone rogue on this regulation and many others under the Obama administration, going to far as to demand that religious schools that accept federal funds repudiate their religion over it (an ominous development that overshadows talk of federal vouchers). Wisely, DeVos is thinking about this, Politico reports:
DeVos has been talking to at least one Republican senator about reining in the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, according to an aide for the lawmaker. Trump’s pick to lead the department had several phone conversations with Republican Sen. James Lankford, who has long accused the department’s civil rights arm of federal overreach. Civil rights advocates worry the Trump administration will move to gut the office or greatly diminish its enforcement role. Lankford doesn’t want to eliminate the Office for Civil Rights, the aide said. But Lankford stressed to DeVos that there are areas he sees as federal overreach — like directives on bullying and harassment that he says aren’t rooted statutory or regulatory text and can create uncertainty for schools.
6. What Has Prepared You To Manage 5,000 Angry Employees Successfully?
Because she’s never held public office and it’s not clear that she has directly managed any employees at the various organizations she has chaired, it’s hard to predict whether DeVos is equipped to manage one of the largest federal bureaucracies successfully. This will be key to accomplishing anything in her new position. Yet, thanks to distaste for Donald Trump among the bureaucracy, DeVos also has an opportunity to hire some more employees who won’t spend her tenure foiling her plans, and to shrink government by ending their positions rather than rehiring:
The Education Department appears poised to lose a significant chunk of its institutional knowledge, as some career employees with decades of experience are looking for the exits because they’re unable to stomach a Trump administration. Some younger employees who joined the Education Department after being energized by President Barack Obama might head for the doors, too.
Even if a thousand USED employees leave, though, that leaves 4,000 career bureaucrats who hate Trump and DeVos. She’ll have to run that mutinous ship. Is she up to it, and where’s the proof?
7. How Will Your Support for Racial Preferences Affect Education Policy?
While her husband was running for governor of Michigan, DeVos as chair of the state Republican Party led the opposition to a proposed state constitutional amendment that banned race, religion, and sex preferences in college admissions and government hiring. She also used the PC pressure of the accusation “racism” against an anti-racist policy two-thirds of voters ultimately supported. These civil rights issues are key to her tenure at USED, as Paul Mirengoff recently noted on Powerline:
as anyone who has been paying attention knows, issues of race and sex will be a big part of DeVos’ portfolio. This where I have a concern.
DeVos and her husband aggressively opposed the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) before its passage in 2006. The MCRI was a citizen initiative to ban discrimination based on race, color, sex, or religion in admission to colleges, jobs, and other publicly funded institutions. It was designed to eliminate preferential treatment by public institutions based on these factors.
… DeVos’ opposition to the MCRI, and in particular her stated desire to avoid fighting for the anti-discrimination principle based on fear of a ‘racially divisive campaign,’ does not inspire confidence. If ‘the swamp’ is to be ‘drained,’ the Trump administration will need fighters, not squishes.
8. Can You Name One Major Federal Ed Program that Has Achieved Its Stated Goals?
Perhaps the key problem with a conservative running an administrative agency like USED is the fact that most conservatives think that agency shouldn’t exist. In its 60-year existence, not one piece of evidence demonstrates the department has done anything to justify the trillions it has spent. If anything, the department harms children and society. For one, it imposes more compliance costs on schools than the bureaucracy-suffocated Department of Defense imposes on its contractors, and no research has found its policies and programs increase student achievement. USED is not an accelerant to national achievement, but an obstacle.
So attempting to do anything productive with a department like this is asking a chef to make a world-class meal out of a tractor tire. It’s just impossibly unfair.
The question is, does DeVos recognize this? A bevy of articles playing up her entirely normal conservative remarks about education in scare quotes suggest she might: She and her husband “lament that public schools have ‘displaced’ the Church as the center of communities, and they cite school choice as a way to reverse that troubling trend”; criticize education for being a “monopoly” and for including so many “failing public schools”; and think “The more choices we have, the more competition we have, but also the better product or the better learning opportunity for the kids.”
A large factor in all these failings of the public education system is the U.S. Department of Education, which will eviscerate churches rather than revive them as a source of common life if given direct power over religious schools through vouchers. But if DeVos really believes “Government really sucks. And it doesn’t matter which party is in power,” why did she accept an offer to run the department that is inherently at odds with all her stated political principles, whose embrace of her education ideas could easily be their kiss of death? Is there any way a real conservative can succeed in commanding an inherently progressive institution?
Time will tell, and I wish her luck. She’ll need it.