Peaceful transitions between administrations are a hallmark of our democracy. By this date in 2009, nearly all of President Obama’s cabinet secretaries had been confirmed by the U.S. Senate. That is certainly not the case this year. Who is to blame? Special interest groups desperate to preserve their seat at the power table, the politicians, eager for an early win against President Trump, and, the media, which too often carried their water, despite admitting to being out of touch with middle America following the November election.
They trained their fire especially on Betsy DeVos, nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education. I saw this firsthand, having volunteered on the Trump transition team. Mrs. DeVos inherited my colleagues and me in our role to support and facilitate her confirmation process. She quickly embraced us as members of her team and proved to be a pillar of strength against the vitriol of the teachers’ unions, liberal bloggers and hand-wringing editorialists.
Don’t believe the hype; the media missed the real story. The driving force behind Mrs. DeVos, as she herself said, is “simple: I trust parents and I believe in our children.”
I have not witnessed such fury and hate since my years working for Speaker Newt Gingrich, another fierce and fiercely misunderstood advocate for families. A brain muscle I had not used in years was back in action.
Mrs. DeVos’ confirmation hearing did little to inform the public about the bigger issues of the day: for example, how to ensure children are enrolled in the right educational environments for them or what strategies should be employed to help students graduate from a higher education institution with the competencies necessary to be successful in the workplace and not be burdened with mountains of student loan debt – issues she raised in her opening statement.
An ugly fault line was revealed: not between Republicans and Democrats, but between America’s families and those who would protect the status quo.
Mrs. DeVos believes that all students can learn, and that all must be taught. “I think what’s important is what the outcomes are, what the achievements are,” she told the senators. “Are students receiving the benefit of a great education?”
To her credit, she has done more than talk. She has devoted nearly three decades to education reform, volunteered as a mentor in the Grand Rapids public schools, partnered with teachers and parents, and pioneered schools that have proven effective at educating children of every income level and ethnicity.
“I think accountability is highly important, and I support accountability for all schools,” she said.
Above all, Mrs. DeVos has worked to give moms and dads real power over their children’s learning. Schools “should be very transparent with the information, and parents should have that information first and foremost,” she told the Senate committee.
Talk about “scary speak” to the education establishment. They would rather keep underperforming schools open than help rescue students in need. Even former President Obama acknowledged the problem in a 2010 interview. “You can’t defend a status quo when you’ve got 2,000 schools across the country that are dropout factories.”
But those who opposed Mrs. DeVos were more interested in process than parents. They march in lockstep with the National Education Association (NEA), one of Washington’s largest campaign donors. The NEA opposes lifting caps on charter schools or giving “high potential” students, as Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) calls them, vouchers to attend schools that better meet their needs.
Parents “know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, religious, or any combination thereof,” Mrs. DeVos told the senators. “Yet, too many parents are denied access to the full range of options…choices that many of us ― here in this room ― have exercised for our own children.”
I’m pleased the Senate voted to confirm her, including with the help of her friend, Vice President Mike Pence.
The question is whether this partisan atmosphere will discourage future nominees from entering public service. I hope not, but this year’s shift from a pretense of civility toward nominees to hard ball campaign-style tactics has set an unfortunate precedent.
Godspeed, Mrs. DeVos.
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