Wednesday’s commentary on Donald Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education certainly garnered both praise and scorn from those in the reform movement. Today, however, I’ll address two criticisms lodged against myself and other reformers who have also expressed concern about the Amway heiress and school reform philanthropist’s place in the incoming administration.
One criticism? That your editor is being unreasonable in my critique that DeVos is unlikely to be able to strongly defend the futures of children black and brown because the President-Elect, along with incoming senior adviser Steve Bannon and Attorney General appointee Jeff Sessions have long, documented records of racism, anti-Semitism, and nativist sentiment. From where they sit, DeVos’ advocacy for advancing school choice, both as Chairman of American Federation for Children as well as in her philanthropy, should more than make up for such concerns. Besides, as they are concerned, someone has to oversee federal education policymaking, and it may as well be her.
This is all well and good in theory. But as I noted on Wednesday, good intentions and even past service are slender reeds against the machinations of immoral and evil people. This has proven true, not only in the history of American public education, but in the history of the 20th century in general.
Beyond that, a key problem with DeVos is that she hasn’t been willing at all to stand up for black and brown children in the days since Trump won the presidency. When she had an opportunity to immediately demand Trump to apologize for his rank demagoguery against immigrant and minority children during his campaign, DeVos didn’t take it. In fact, she immediately declared that AFC would work with Trump’s administration to advance choice.
While other reformers, including Democrats for Education Reform, condemned Trump’s bigotry (as well as his appointments of Bannon and Sessions) to the administration, DeVos remained silent. Even when she accepted Trump’s nomination, DeVos didn’t take a stand and declare a willingness to oppose any effort by the administration to scale back the federal government’s constitutional role in protecting the civil rights of its most-vulnerable children.
To say that DeVos’ silence is a problem is to be kind. Here’s the thing: If DeVos cannot condemn bigotry before she takes an office, can she be expected to do so afterward? Especially given concerns among the families of gay and lesbian children about the longstanding efforts of DeVos and her family against the recognition of their right to civil marriage, people are rightfully concerned that she will not be a stalwart champion for all of our children.
Another criticism is that your editor and others are essentially fighting against expanding school choice because we believe that working with the future Trump Administration means compromising our promise to defend all children. From where they sit, if the new regime is willing to advance vouchers, charters, and other forms of choice, why shouldn’t we assist it?
Your editor has already argued that this kind of ends-justify-the-means logic will damage the effort to expand choice, especially with the very minority communities for which we are championing. As Greg Forster of the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation notes in a piece on DeVos’ nomination (as well as an earlier commentary), the failure to openly, honestly, and consistently call out Trump’s bigotry (as well as that of Bannon and Sessions) will also damage support for choice within the overall school reform movement itself.
Why? This is because the success of the movement itself — especially the expansion of choice — has (and continues to) depend on a bipartisan and socioeconomically diverse coalition that includes progressives, Centrist Democrats, and black civil rights activists for whom bigotry against children black and brown is a major concern. School choice activists (along with conservative reformers) cannot “turn a blind eye to racism” or ignore Trump’s long record of bigotry without risking loss of support for their efforts. Declares Forster: “My biggest fear is that the school choice issue will become tied to Trump... a notorious racist who discriminates against blacks in his businesses, said a judge of Mexican ancestry couldn’t judge him impartially… and refused, three times, to repudiate the KKK when first asked to do so.”
This is what makes the presence of DeVos in the Trump Administration so troubling. Because of her advocacy for school choice, her presence alongside Trump (as well as Bannon and Sessions) makes it even harder for Black, Latino, and Asian reformers who champion choice to continue doing so without risk of damaging their work with the men, women, and children who look like them. Which means choice advocates will struggle even more mightily against traditionalists who will cleverly use such associations to tarnish charters and vouchers. As I have noted in the past, bad news (including bad studies and associations with evil people) cast longer shadows than evidence of the good.
The good news, as Forster notes, is that there are ways to avoid associating choice with Trump’s bigotry. One way is to focus solely on expanding choice at the state levels, essentially abandoning federal policy until Trump and DeVos leave office. Certainly this means losing key tools in expanding choice, especially against traditional districts and others opposed to allowing poor and minority children to attain high-quality options. Such a move, however, is far better for efforts to expand choice than to associate the movement with a regime that has no interest in helping black and brown children anyway.
As I wrote yesterday, I pray that DeVos will be a strong champion for all of our children, and will challenge the bigotry that will come from Trump’s administration. I know others critical of her associating with the regime will do the same. But the concerns remain outstanding and, given the record, legitimate. So reformers can’t either ignore them. Or remain silent.