The reaction to DeVos’s resignation underscores how her critics have taken a torch to the basic standards of public discourse and democratic civility.
Last Wednesday, President Trump incited a mob to assault the U.S. Capitol as Congress sat in a joint session to certify the Electoral College vote. The next day, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced her resignation. DeVos minced no words in explaining her decision, nor in explicitly calling out Trump for his seditious behavior. “There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation, and it is the inflection point for me,” she wrote in her resignation letter.
During her tempestuous tenure in office, DeVos evoked strong feelings among her critics. Many disagreed vehemently with her views on school choice, religious freedom, and government regulation. They profusely criticized her talk of “factory-model government schools” and often deemed her ill-prepared for the role. Many thought she should never have agreed to serve under Trump, or else should have resigned in response to his earlier provocations. These complaints are legitimate and fair grounds for tough-minded debate.
Yet, such disagreements do not justify or excuse the poisonous politics of malice that DeVos has been subjected to over the past four years — attacks that have taken a torch to the basic standards of public discourse and democratic civility.
In response to DeVos’s resignation, National Education Association president Becky Pringle felt moved to declare: “Resigning 13 days before the end of this administration does nothing to erase the harm Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has done to this country’s students, their families and educators. She has failed our students yet again when they needed her most. Her complicity, cowardice, and complete incompetence will be her legacy.”
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten responded to the news with a press release that read, in its entirety: “Good riddance.”
A quick Google scan turns up a raft of such statements, rife with vitriolic claims of “cowardice and self-interest.”
I have known Pringle and Weingarten for many years. However much we disagree, I respect them. But these remarks, issued at precisely the moment that DeVos was breaking with Trump, were pointlessly personal and poisonous — especially from officials representing millions of educators. Unfortunately, they’re of a piece with the vilification that has been heaped on DeVos over the past four years. The irony is that Pringle and Weingarten have been among those who’ve — quite rightly — castigated Trump for his endless assaults on civility.
During her tenure, I’ve frequently found attacks on DeVos to be curiously unmoored from what she’s actually done in office. Many who casually dismiss her as a ruinous force can only vaguely identify the bill of particulars that they find so offensive, or have ultimately had to concede that they aren’t actually familiar with, say, the specifics of the Title IX rulemaking, CARES Act guidance, or Borrower’s Defense modifications that they find so appalling. Really, they just hate DeVos.
DeVos was maligned from the moment she was nominated, well before her freshly minted critics even knew much about her. Within 72 hours of DeVos being named secretary-designate, the New York Times published an op-ed insisting that her nomination was “a triumph of ideology over evidence that should worry anyone who wants to improve results for children.” Salon added that DeVos “would be terrible for public education in this country.”
Little-known candidates for secretary of education have typically been accorded a genial reception, a norm that has much to recommend it. President-elect Biden’s selection, Miguel Cardona, has (quite appropriately) received respectful coverage. Indeed, it appears he’ll be given every chance to demonstrate his mettle. That was equally true of predecessors Margaret Spellings, Arne Duncan, and John King.
It’s true that DeVos was an outside-the-box choice and (at least for those who imagine the U.S. Department of Education to be the property of the education establishment) an “outsider.” But she had also been board chair for the Alliance for School Choice, head of All Children Matter, a board member for Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, and a Republican National committeewoman. Heck, she was labeled a “pretty mainstream pick” by Democratic education heavyweight Andy Rotherham, a former special assistant in the Clinton White House.
Nevertheless, DeVos was consistently held to arbitrary double standards. Consider this: Should Miguel Cardona be held responsible for the abysmal performance of Connecticut’s urban schools? For any reasonable observer, the answer would be a resounding “no.” Cardona has only been directing Connecticut’s education bureaucracy for a little over a year, and before that he was a junior administrator in a modest school system. It would be ludicrous to fault him for the longtime struggles of New Haven or Hartford. Yet, while DeVos had never held a position of educational authority in Detroit or Michigan, she was routinely blamed by critics for the troubled plight of Detroit’s schools.
Those who step into the public square are choosing to subject themselves to the rigors of public debate. That’s how democratic government works. But civil, responsible government requires civility and responsibility. In its absence, we may find ourselves unable to stand shoulder-to-shoulder even in the face of sedition and insurrection.