On Sunday evening, reporter Lesley Stahl interviewed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for 60 Minutes. You can watch the interview and read the transcript.
Betsy DeVos is not a person of action. In the interview she describes what she believes are the symptoms of education malaise across America and then she prescribes two treatments: more school choice and less federal regulation. DeVos understands herself as an undoer rather than a doer. When Stahl asks her what she is most proud of accomplishing during her first year as Education Secretary, DeVos replies: “We’ve been looking at and rolling back a lot of the overreach of the federal government in education.”
Yesterday President Donald Trump established a Federal Commission on School Safety, and he put DeVos in charge. The Washington Post‘s Philip Rucker quotes DeVos on the urgent need for this new Commission: “We are committed to working quickly because there’s no time to waste… No student, no family, no teacher and no school should have to live the horror of Parkland or Sandy Hook or Columbine again.”
In the 60 Minutes interview, however, DeVos doesn’t appear to plan to do more than convene the school safety commission. Here is the interchange between Stahl and DeVos on DeVos’s role as chair of the new school safety commission:
Stahl: “Do you see yourself as a leader in this—in this subject? And what kind of ideas will you be promoting?”
DeVos : “I have actually asked to head up a task force that will really look at what states are doing. See there are a lot of states that are addressing these issues in very cohesive and coherent ways.”
Stahl: “Do you feel a sense of urgency:”
Stahl: “Cause this sounds like talking. Instead of acting.”
DeVos: “No, there is a sense of urgency indeed.”
When Stahl asks DeVos directly whether teachers should be armed, a position Trump has endorsed but the majority of teachers have strongly opposed, DeVos waffles: “That should be an option for states and communities to consider. And I hesitate to think of, like, my first grade teacher, Mrs. Zorhoff, I couldn’t ever imagine her having a gun and being trained in this way. But for those who are—who are capable, this is one solution that can and should be considered. But no one size fits all. Every state and every community is going to address this issue in a different way.”
In perhaps the most important part of the interview, Stahl probes Secretary DeVos’s ideas about what can be done to improve public education in America. DeVos pronounces what has become her standard answer: “What can be done… is empowering parents to make the choices for their kids… Families that don’t have the power…. and they are assigned to that school, they are stuck there. I am fighting for the parents who don’t have those choices. We need all parents to have those choices.”
Stahl follows up with the essential question: “Okay. But what about the kids who are back at the school that’s not working? What about those kids?” “Why take money away from the school that’s not working? ”
DeVos answers that school choice imposes competition, which, she believes improves schools: “Well, we should be funding and investing in students, not in…school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems… Well, in places where there have been—where there is—a lot of choice that’s been introduced… studies show that then there’s a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools actually—the results get better, as well.”
Stahl: “Now, has that happened in Michigan?… We’re in Michigan. This is your home state… Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?”
DeVos: “I don’t know. Overall, I—I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.”
Stahl: “The public schools here are doing worse than they did… Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe to try to figure out what they’re doing?”
DeVos: “I have not—I have not—I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.”
Stahl: “Maybe you should.”
DeVos: “Maybe I should. Yes.”
About the undoing of the federal role in education, what DeVos calls federal overreach, she is clearer: “Yeah. We’ve begun looking at and rolling back a lot of the overreach of the federal government in education.” While DeVos has been very busy weakening regulation of for-profit colleges, federal student loan processors and debt collection agencies, the discussion in the 60 Minutes interview centers on the weakening of civil rights protections for students in K-12 schools. Stahl mentions DeVos’s rescinding the guidelines allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice, weakening a rule to prevent disproportionate discipline applied across racial groups, changing Title IX guidelines to focus more on the rights of the accused rather than the accuser.
DeVos seems unable to grasp that the protection of students’ rights by law must apply—and has always historically applied—to protected classes of students, for example, by race, sexual orientation, national origin, gender expression, and religion. Here is DeVos responding to Stahl’s questions about the Department of Education’s designated role of protecting students’ civil rights: “We need to ensure that all students have an opportunity to learn in a safe and nurturing environment. And all students means all students… Arguably, all of these issues or all of this issue comes down to individual kids… I am committed to making sure that students have the opportunity to learn in an environment that is conducive to their learning.”
When Stahl presses DeVos to clarify exactly how she understands the rules and how the Department of Education will ensure that the Department will fully enforce civil rights protections of the rights of the victims in sexual assault cases, DeVos replies: “I don’t know. I don’t know. But I’m committed to a process that’s fair for everyone involved.”
None of this, of course, is new or shocking. Our Secretary of Education is extremely consistent. She is an educational libertarian who once declared in a major policy address: “Government really sucks.” However, in the area of K-12 schools, there are several primary roles assigned to the U.S. Department of Education that are being undermined or ignored under DeVos’s leadership. DeVos is systematically undoing the role of the Department’s Office for Civil Rights.
And she is not doing anything to address the issues we know are denying opportunity for millions of our nation’s poorest children. In a nation that is increasingly segregated by income—with the rich sequestered in privileged suburbs and the poor trapped in particular neighborhoods of our cities and in remote rural areas— DeVos has done nothing to increase Title I, the Department’s primary program for helping schools that serve concentrations of poor children. Nor has she ever discussed ways the Department of Education could incentivize state governments to improve the equitable distribution of state aid to schools. Nor has she ever mentioned partnering with other Departments to develop multi-pronged efforts to ameliorate concentrated family poverty itself.
Her interview with 60 Minutes pretty much describes DeVos’s philosophy of government: undoing and not doing. She fails to grasp that in education, the definition of justice is to distribute opportunity fairly to all children. Government, through the law and the administration of the law by executive departments like Education, is supposed to help with that. Individuals—the people DeVos always mentions—lack the power to secure justice for themselves. And in DeVos’s imagined ideal education marketplace, the least powerful individuals will continue to lack the power to compete. DeVos clearly does not grasp that government agencies like the Department of Education are charged with the mission of protecting, by law, the children who have the least power.