Fare Thee Well, Madam Secretary

Four years ago, had President-Elect Donald Trump seen fit to ask me to name the 10 individuals I would most hope to see nominated to become the nation’s next Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos would not have come to mind. My exclusion of Ms. DeVos would have had less to do with an evaluation of her qualifications than with a sheer lack of imagination on my part. At the time, I suppose I was expecting Donald Trump to act with some degree of predictability.

She was, of course, an unconventional choice, tapped by the most unconventional of presidents. Her nomination prompted immediate howls of execration, not so much for the fact that Betsy DeVos had never been a classroom teacher, as because she dared to challenge the orthodoxies of the nation’s education establishment. As president of The American Federation for Children, she demonstrated the audacity to maintain that kids, families and society would be better served if government were to take education funding out of the hands of producers, and place it, instead, in those of consumers – particularly consumers who lacked the financial wherewithal to enroll their children in schools of their own choosing.

It was for expressing such a view, rather than for lack of credentials or experience in the field that she was immediately deemed unqualified to hold the position for which she was nominated. She was excoriated by teacher union and other education establishment special interest group leaders, both before assuming the position she would eventually hold for nearly four years, and throughout her tenure of office. Beginning with her Senate confirmation hearing – a spectacle for which she was, admittedly, under-prepared – she was treated with unrestrained derision and scorn by opponents. Hers was arguably the most contentious cabinet appointment in recent history, her confirmation coming only from a tie-breaking Senate vote cast by Vice-President Mike Pence. The acrimony was never to subside.

She was vilified on social media platforms, mocked on Saturday Night Live, and routinely trashed by pundits who characterized her as ditzy, dangerous, both. or worse. Interestingly, I’m unaware of any claims that the insults Betsy DeVos has endured are attributable to her sex, or the fact that she is an outspoken woman who has achieved power and influence.

To be sure, Secretary DeVos took several controversial actions that invited legitimate criticism. The same, of course, could be said of Arne Duncan, a predecessor of Ms. DeVos’, whose dismissal was also encouraged (albeit not nearly as vociferously) by the teachers unions. From her confirmation hearing onward, she repeatedly found herself painted into a corner from which the only route of escape required jurisprudence that is yet to come. Such attacks often took the form of questions asking whether the former Secretary would countenance the allocation of public funds to faith-based private schools if those schools discriminated against certain protected classes of persons. It is a difficult question, pitting two constitutional protections – one pertaining to religious liberty, and the other to civil rights – against each other.

It didn’t help that she had Donald Trump for a boss. Though he made several attempts to follow through on the school choice promises he had proffered as a candidate, President Trump’s initial proposals remained inchoate, and his administration’s later efforts failed to muster sufficient Congressional traction, even in the Republican-controlled Senate. Apparently, the President was unwilling to invest the necessary political capital required to deliver a needle-moving school choice victory, or to go toe-to-toe with the teachers unions in the process of trying.

Nor did it help – in retrospect, and good intentions, notwithstanding – that Ms. DeVos attempted to interpret language contained in the CARES Act statute, in a manner that would have provided additional COVID-19 related federal relief funding to a broader number of private school students. Her efforts to do so ended up backfiring, galvanizing the opposition, precipitating fierce push-back, multiple lawsuits, and a cascade of unfavorable media reports that painted a picture of wealthy private schools “stealing” from public schools serving pupils from poverty backgrounds.

Ms. DeVos never wavered when it came to standing on principle and expressing her beliefs. As recently as the week prior to her resignation, the former Secretary included the following remarks in a statement responding to the signing of the COVID-19 relief package (after Congress declined to include provisions for a school choice education tax credit in the sweeping legislation):

“At the same time, Congress failed to extend the freedom and the resources individual students need in order to access the K-12 education option that is the right fit for them. In the end, Congress focused on systems instead of on students. It took the same tired approach when students desperately need something new and different. School Choice Now is what students and parents need. Without that provision, students whose parents can no longer afford tuition at their private school, whose private school was forced to close, or who remain at the mercy of their closed government school are left behind once again.”

Despite the constant abuse to which she was subjected, Betsy DeVos comported herself with consistent dignity, equanimity, and graciousness as U.S. Secretary of Education. At this moment in our nation’s history, it would behoove critics of Ms. DeVos’ policies to, at the very least, acknowledge her civility, and the propriety of her demeanor. Nor should such acknowledgement be restricted to opponents of the erstwhile Secretary of Education. Surely, it would hasten a national political reconciliation if critics of Barack Obama and George W. Bush, alike, could bring themselves to openly acknowledge that both men dignified the highest office in the land.

Sadly, we’re a long way away from such expressions of common decency. A January 7, 2021 American Federation of Teachers press release issued by union President Randi Weingarten on the heels of Betsy DeVos’ resignation consisted of but two words: “Good riddance.”

There are, undoubtedly, many Americans who share that view, and we’re all entitled to our feelings and beliefs. Wouldn’t we be better off as a society and as a nation, however, if each of us could muster the self-restraint required to better regulate the manner in which we give expression to our reflexive, visceral feelings…no matter how much the availability of social media tempts us to do otherwise? In the end, we reap what we sow.

Ron Reynolds

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessary represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.

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