Lacking expertise and ideas, DeVos still needs some plan to improve schools

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seems to have a lack of familiarity with the debate over how student achievement should be measured – by a single measure of proficiency or by how much improvement is seen over time.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seems to have a lack of familiarity with the debate over how student achievement should be measured – by a single measure of proficiency or by how much improvement is seen over time. Associated Press

The parade of gruesome Cabinet confirmations continues, the nominees with their problematic backgrounds and loathsome policies. Why is it, then, that Betsy DeVos’ (barely) successful nomination particularly sticks out among them as an abuse of the Senate confirmation process? After all, the Department of Education that she will lead (I use the word advisedly) isn’t the most influential among U.S. agencies, or the one with the biggest budget.

It could be the tens of millions of dollars that the billionaire and her family have lavished on Republican senators over the years. Of those, 23 voted on her confirmation. And only one of them, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, cast a vote against her.

Or perhaps it’s the lack of any expertise for the job. Not just education expertise; a smart, well-informed manager from one walk of life can often transfer those skills to another. DeVos has none of that on her résumé. What she has is a personal belief: Push more privatization of education, especially in the form of private-school vouchers.

DeVos is far from the only Cabinet nominee these days to espouse simplistic and problematic ideas. No, the bigger problem with DeVos is that aside from vouchers, she appears to have no ideas – or, in fact, any reasonably good knowledge of key issues confronting public schools.

No matter how much DeVos might believe in a nationwide private-school heaven, even she realizes that most of the schools in this country will remain public. That means she needs some plan for how her office might be used to help support and prod those schools to improve, rather than just trying to replace them. There has to be more than vouchers up her sleeve for millions of American schoolchildren even though their numbers aren’t as large as the number of dollars the DeVos family has showered on conservative lawmakers.

It’s painful to have to write this Management 101 sentence about how the world’s great superpower should conduct government business, but here goes: Basic understanding of public education should be a requirement for the job.

And that is what rankles most about the DeVos confirmation – not her ideology or the popularity that political donations can buy (or her silly conjecture that some schools probably need guns on campus to protect students from grizzly bears), but the sheer incompetence on display at her confirmation hearing.

Her utter ignorance of federal law protecting students with disabilities: She suggested that states could be in charge of deciding such matters. Nope.

Her lack of familiarity with the long-running debate over how student achievement should be measured: By a single measure of proficiency, or by how much improvement is seen over time. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., had to explain it to her right then and there. “But it surprises me you don’t know this issue,” he said with admirable restraint.

Her unwillingness to promise that she would hold all schools accountable – traditional public schools, charter schools and private voucher schools – to the same standards. And her estimate of the growth of college-student debt, which wasn’t just off. It was off like saying Mercury is as far from the sun as Pluto.

As much as Americans believe in democracy, we also believe in meritocracy, a system that rewards talent and effort. Meritocracy is inherent to our sense of fairness, of living in a land of opportunity, where honest work and talent have worth. OK, so we know better – look at our president – but the DeVos confirmation shreds even the vestiges of the notion that people should deserve their jobs. It sends a message that aptitude and mastery don’t matter anymore, and that’s a hell of a lesson for our schools.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.