New York Mag Flunks the ‘Zealot’ and ‘Bully' Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

August 1st, 2017 11:09 AM

Journalist Lisa Miller has a hostile 5,500-word profile of "bully" Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in the July 24 edition of New York magazine, complete with cloying, cutesy “portraits” of DeVos (none particularly gentle-looking) “commissioned” from schoolchildren. The headline selection serves as a reliable CliffsNotes summary of the text: “Who Is Betsy DeVos? And how did she get to be head of our schools?” The cover tag: “Betsy DeVos, Underperformer – The social promotion of an education zealot.”

In Miller’s slanted view, DeVos was fine, back when she wasn’t persona non grata among Democrats and “venerable” moderate Republicans like John Kasich.

Betsy DeVos used to have more friends. Way back in 2016, a coalition of reputable, fair-minded education reformers -- some of them Democrats -- got together to vouch for her. Sure, she was inexperienced in the policy realm. Also, an outsider to Washington. Also, naïve to the demands of living under the internet’s ever-watchful eye. Still, it seemed to these surrogates that in choosing a secretary of Education, the president-elect might have done a lot worse. DeVos, a Michigan billionaire and Republican stalwart, had been pouring her energies and her fortune into education for years. Besides, she had signaled a strong distaste for Trump. She attended the convention as a delegate for John Kasich, leading these hopefuls to think that she might approach her new post with the venerable reasonableness of her party’s middle branch. “She is the Establishment. She reeks of Establishment,” says someone who used to work for her.

Miller, a former liberal-leaning religion reporter for the Washington Post, proceeded to smack around DeVos’s reputation with old anecdotes and hostile characterizations of sensible proposals (like restoring the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” to campus rape inquiries, discouraged under the Obama administration).

It’s not hard to understand why some might be shy about speaking on her behalf. With her suggestion that guns might be necessary in western schools against grizzly bears, and, most recently, the botched messaging that made the ED appear unduly sympathetic to the perpetrators of campus sexual assault, DeVos’s tenure has so far seemed like a litany of blunders and humiliations that have made her a target of protest and an object of ridicule. “She doesn’t have deep knowledge,” says Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, who has met with the secretary many times. “And without deep knowledge, you pretty much feel on the defensive.” Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.

Miller devoted paragraphs to the supposedly acceptable DeVos of the past, all the better to contrast her with the apparently unacceptable one at the Department of Education.

Betsy DeVos was first awakened to the struggles of poor parents after going on a tour of the Potter’s House in Grand Rapids, a private Christian school for disadvantaged kids....

After her visit to the Potter’s House, Betsy DeVos became one of the nation’s most aggressive activists for vouchers -- government credits to help parents pay for the private or parochial school of their choice. Everyone agrees that in the country’s poorest Zip Codes, schools are mostly failing to serve children. But disagreement is virulent around the causes and solutions. Teachers unions hate vouchers because they funnel scarce per-student dollars out of public-school districts and into the private sector. Liberals regard them suspiciously as a Trojan horse: a way for religious or sectarian groups to erode First Amendment protections and take control of schools. Will government dollars be spent, for example, to teach American children that God created the world in a week? ....

Miller rather blandly described a confrontation at a D.C. school with angry education-union protesters, that threatened to endanger DeVos. Then Miller nervily blamed DeVos for spending on security.

The following week, DeVos got a security detail of U.S. Marshals, the first Education secretary ever to have one: 22 guards, six on duty at a time, which will cost taxpayers at least $7.8 million this year. There was widespread outrage among the department’s rank and file, for Trump has made no secret of wanting to reduce the number of federal employees. “I mean, let’s say the average federal salary at ED is 80k,” says Charles Doolittle, a career employee who quit the department in June. “That unnecessary security is 100 employees. They’re freezing hiring, even considering buyouts, and possibly layoffs? And if the security really is so terribly necessary, then why doesn’t the billionaire pay for it out of pocket?”

Doolittle was one of many disgruntled liberals who quit the administration and were ripe to spill tales about low morale at the Department of Education.

Later, Miller set DeVos up for a fall as she was invited to speak at a Special Olympics dinner where she “was gracious....another Cabinet secretary might have made excuses and an exit, but DeVos stayed, visiting with the athletes and their families at each table. She chatted and shook hands and took pictures with everyone -- as if these were the most powerful people in the country and not the least.”

But Miller soon came with a “bully” haymaker from the left, based on the liberal nostrum that individual care and compassion must equal spending other people’s tax money, or else its useless and hypocritical.

Some of the people who know this side of DeVos were thus more astonished than anyone to see her defending a federal budget that in its initial form proposed $9 billion in cuts when it was released in May, a reduction of 13 percent. It eliminated after-school programs, mostly for poor kids. It killed professional development for teachers. It targeted arts programs, foreign languages, child care for low-income parents in college. It nixed a program meant to encourage integration in the nation’s most segregated schools....

That must have been how Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, felt when he read one morning in the Washington Post that his entire federal budget had been killed. The Special Olympics receives about $12 million annually -- which it matches with private dollars -- for a program that rewards schools for including disabled athletes on their sports teams and has been proven to reduce the depression and isolation that disabled students feel....Perhaps this was another blunder, another unintentional oversight, but the result is the same: The kids who were at the Marriott that night will be the first to recognize a bully when they see one, no matter how graciously she shakes hands.