Not Good, but Not the End of the World

Today, as expected, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the new Secretary of Education  The Senate voted 50-50, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-breaking vote.

It is understandable that people may be very disheartened by this news, but there are are at least three reasons to view this as – well, not a good thing, but certainly not as bad as many might fear.

  1. Yes, Ms. DeVos is unqualified for the position. And yes, many of the philosophies she espouses run counter to the the ideals of public education. But we need to remember that as inept as she may be, the reality is that the role of Department of Education is very limited. She does not have the ability to privatize public schools, mandate vouchers, or force creationism into the curriculum. Education is still a locally controlled entity, and, if anything, one of the main reasons that GOP Senators have given for supporting her is that she will help return more control back to the states. Beyond that, there is reason to believe that while Republicans backed her out of party loyalty, she doesn’t really have much more credibility with them than she does with Democrats and this lack of credibility will “clip her wings,” inhibiting her from doing too much damage.

    This is not to say she can’t do any damage (This NPR story lists some areas of concern, including a few related to higher ed and the fear that with less Federal oversight “some states will be less vigilant than others in identifying and correcting historic educational inequities of race and class.”), but her confirmation will not bring about the end of pubic education.

  2. It would be crazy for anyone who cares about public education to celebrate today’s result, but there is a school of thought that suggests it actually would have been worse if a third Republican had turned against the party and voted her down.

    Keep in mind, had DeVos not been confirmed, Trump was not going to be chastened by the defeat and nominate an actual educator in her place. He would have simply found someone else of a similar ideological mindset to DeVos, who, by comparison, would undoubtedly seem like a relatively reasonable choice, thus diffusing some of the controversy and protest at a time we need to remain vigilant.

    As mentioned before, there has never been this much attention paid to a nominee for Secretary of Education. Because she is so polarizing, people who never gave thought to the topic are now speaking up against what she stands for, which can only serve to help the cause of public education. As one policy wonk put it in the Atlantic, “It will only help them because they can constantly point to her as the symbol of everything that’s wrong. … People who care about public education have a real opportunity here to say, ‘Okay, we’ve all been talking about this a lot. Let’s really think about what our public-education system needs to sustain itself robustly for the next century, so people like Betsy DeVos don’t want to keep tearing it down.”

  3. Again, the outcry against Ms. DeVos was absolutely unprecedented – not just for an Education Secretary, but for any cabinet nominee. Educators, parents, writers, activists, politicians, celebrities, and civil rights groups, generated a stunning level of resistance that literally overwhelmed many Senate offices. However… the fact that it did not succeed could easily lead to the conclusion that political action is dead – that we have reached the point where politicians are 100% indifferent to the wishes of their constituents.

    But that is not the right conclusion to draw. The DeVos debacle is a special case (and this piece in Slate explains just why there really was no point in waiting for one more Republican to buck the party).  Over time we’ve highlighted example after example of how political action works and think it’s worthwhile to point out two very recent examples you may have missed.

    • Just a few weeks ago, the House GOP pulled back on their plan to gut ethics rules after they were deluged by calls and letters from angry voters.
    • Last week, Rep. Jason Chaffetz was forced to withdraw a bill that would have sold off 3.3 million acres of Federal land “after a fierce backlash from hunters, sportsmen and women, and conservationists on both the left and the right”

The point is that, while there are significant exceptions, political action does work.

So, please. Don’t be disheartened and don’t give up. We need to keep working and doing what we do best, and we will prevail.