On Sunday evening, CBS’ “60 Minutes” broadcast an interview that Lesley Stahl conducted with Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s education secretary and one of the richest members of his very rich Cabinet. It was overwhelmingly seen as a disaster for DeVos, who struggled to answer very basic questions. She couldn’t say, for example, why schools in Michigan, her home state, have largely gotten worse since the widespread introduction of the school choice policies she lobbied for. When Stahl asked whether, as secretary, she’d ever visited a failing school to find out what went wrong, DeVos said, “I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.”
Like many things in Trump’s administration, this performance was shocking but not surprising. Before becoming secretary of education, DeVos had never worked as an educator or a policymaker; she was a donor to education reform efforts favored by the right, such as school choice and vouchers. Her confirmation hearings last year were an embarrassment. She appeared to be unfamiliar with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, a federal civil rights law. After taking office, she described historically black universities and colleges, founded in response to segregation, as “pioneers when it comes to school choice.”
As this comment suggested, DeVos is, at best, oblivious about race. That obliviousness – or worse – is behind one of the more disturbing moments in her “60 Minutes” interview. In a sick irony, some on the right would use the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida – allegedly committed by a young man who carved swastikas into the magazines for his semi-automatic rifle – as a pretext to roll back civil rights protections for students of color. On “60 Minutes,” DeVos, whom Trump has chosen to lead his new school safety commission, appeared to signal she’s on board.
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To understand how, we need to start with a letter that Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sent to DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions on March 5 about the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Rubio referred to a 2014 Barack Obama-era directive, known as the Dear Colleague Letter on the Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline, intended to address the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, in which disadvantaged students are funneled into the criminal justice system for misbehaving at school. The Dear Colleague Letter said school personnel must “understand that they, rather than school resource officers and other security or law enforcement personnel, are responsible for administering routine student discipline.”
Without citing any evidence, Rubio wrote that this guidance “may have contributed to systemic failures” to report the suspected Parkland gunman, Nikolas Cruz, to the police, and asked DeVos to revise it. Ann Coulter made a similar argument in a column published in Breitbart: “Cruz’s criminal acts were intentionally ignored by law enforcement on account of Broward’s much-celebrated ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ reforms.”
“The logic that people try to manufacture is that the effort to end exclusionary school discipline renders schools unsafe places,” Catherine Lhamon, who served as assistant secretary for civil rights in Obama’s Department of Education, told me. “It doesn’t even bear scrutiny, really.”
But in this administration it doesn’t have to. DeVos isn’t just considering ending the policy. Speaking to Stahl, she refused to even admit that race plays a role in discipline.
Among experts, this isn’t really a subject for debate. “There’s some fairly good empirical evidence that says minority students are more likely than white students in similar situations to be written up and disciplined,” said Michael Hansen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies education policy.
Speaking to DeVos, Stahl compared situations in which white kids are punished for classroom disruption by a trip to the principal’s office, while for black kids, “they call in the cops.” DeVos refused to say such a discrepancy is wrong: “Arguably, all of these issues or all of this issue comes down to individual kids.” Stahl pressed her on whether this “disproportion in discipline” constitutes “institutional racism.” DeVos said she was committed to “making sure students have opportunity to learn in safe and nurturing environments.”
The comparison Stahl offered was a hypothetical, but it captured the heart of the issue. Black public school students are suspended at 3.8 times the rate of white students. That discrepancy alone doesn’t necessarily demonstrate discrimination, but there’s evidence that students of color are punished differently from white students for the same infractions. Lhamon told me about one elementary school where a black girl was suspended for poking a student with a pencil. When a white girl in the same grade threw a rock that hit another child in the head and broke the teacher’s sunglasses, she was made to help the teacher clean the classroom during lunch.
The DeVos interview has already sent a message that schools can be less mindful of stark disciplinary disparities. Combine this tacit license to discriminate with the Trump administration plan to encourage the arming of teachers, and you have a recipe for something combustible. There’s a lesson here that applies across the administration. Don’t let the clownishness distract you from the bigotry.