Newsweek

Betsy DeVos Is Coming for Your Public Schools

Betsy DeVos has worked to undermine Michigan's public schools, according to her critics. Is she ready to lead the nation's education department?
Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican from Michigan, has been nominated to head the federal Education Department.
01_08_17_DeVos Source: Mike Segar/Reuters

There was a brief moment in mid-November when education reformers were thrilled about President-elect Donald Trump’s swamp-draining imperative and what it might mean for the nation’s eternally beleaguered public schools. On November 16, Trump met at his Manhattan tower with Eva Moskowitz, whose Success Academy charter network has achieved impressive results with children of color across New York City. The following weekend, he entertained Michelle Rhee, the former head of Washington, D.C.’s public schools, at his golf club in New Jersey. Despite her uneven results, Rhee remains popular with those who think incompetent teachers and the unions that protect them are holding back America’s kids.

Instead, Trump chose Betsy DeVos to head the Education Department, a federal agency with oversight over all of the nation’s educational institutions, from prekindergarten programs to graduate schools of business. The choice mystified all those who’d figured Trump was looking for a capable, forward-looking technocrat focused on student testing and teacher accountability. The choice horrified teachers unions, as DeVos is a billionaire Republican who has worked assiduously to weaken the public schools in Michigan.

Comedian Rob Delaney tweeted, “Trump's pick of DeVos as Sec. of Education is more hateful than pouring a vat of shit out of a helicopter onto a group of 1st graders.” Crude as that sentiment may be, it reflects the prevalent perception—unfair, perhaps—that DeVos is unsuited to her post, having never worked in a school or a school district. Her nomination is in keeping with Trump’s apparent conviction that nothing fuels government work better than antipathy to the government.

DeVos would not be the first ideologue to head the Education Department: William Bennett, appointed by Ronald Reagan, was a conservative culture warrior of the first order. George H.W. Bush’s appointments, Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings, were also no liberals. But ever since the first education secretary—Shirley Hufstedler, appointed by Jimmy Carter to the new post in 1979—nearly every person to hold that office has had direct experience in teaching or educational administration (two were governors who’d enacted large reform measures).

DeVos, by contrast, is a professional lobbyist. She may be qualified, but when it

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