When Donald Trump named Betsy DeVos his choice for secretary of education in 2016, the mainstream media labeled her unfit for the office. They especially disliked her support for school vouchers and charter schools, which the New York Times described at the time not as an innovative alternative to a sclerotic and failing public-education system but as a “philosophy that abandoned poorer families.” The Washington Post’s education reporter, Valerie Strauss, agreed, describing DeVos as “the most polarizing education secretary nominee ever.”
The Times and other media outlets continued their criticism during DeVos’s confirmation hearings in 2017, calling her performance inept and excoriating her for suggesting that decisions about education are better left to state and local officials as opposed to federal bureaucrats. They gleefully attacked her for her family’s wealth. A typical Times assessment: “More than anyone else who has joined the incoming Trump administration, she represents the combination of wealth, free-market ideology and political hardball associated with a better-known family of billionaires: Charles and David Koch.” Reporters eagerly gathered quotes from disgruntled political opponents, including one in Michigan who compared DeVos to his toddler granddaughter. Both “turned into spoiled little brats when they were told no,” the Times reported.
Once the Senate confirmed DeVos, the media doubled down on their image of her as the Education Department’s resident villain. In a piece in August 2017, the Washington Post’s Strauss wrote, “It is tempting to conclude that after six months as education secretary, Betsy DeVos hasn’t accomplished all that much.”
But it’s only “tempting” if your ideological bias is as entrenched as Strauss’s clearly was. Even she had to admit that, “like it or not, DeVos has taken some major steps to change education policy,” which is typically what happens when one political party gains power after eight years of the other party’s policies, but it was an astonishing surprise to Strauss.
In fact, what angered the media from the first day of DeVos’s tenure as secretary was not her policy positions so much as her refusal to play the role of cheerleader to public schools and teachers’ unions, as Democrats typically do and as the left-leaning media expects. Instead, DeVos spoke bluntly about the problems facing public schools and the innovations that might solve them. As Strauss complained, “DeVos’s denunciations of the federal government and her refusal to make even a tepid call-out to the value of the public education system, can’t help but have an effect on the way some Americans feel about their neighborhood public schools, which educate the vast majority of the country’s schoolchildren.”
It’s doubtful that pandering to the media’s need for aspirational chatter about public schools would have spared DeVos the heavily biased reporting about her tenure, but it points to a deeper problem with the mainstream media’s role during Republican administrations: the tendency to claim incompetence or evil on the part of Republican officials rather than make a good-faith effort to understand political and policy disagreements.
Consider the New York Times columnist Gail Collins, who made DeVos a frequent subject of her opinion columns, going so far as to sponsor a Worst Trump Cabinet Member reader poll in June 2017 that named DeVos the winner. Collins wrote approvingly of the results, which focused less on policy disagreements than on personal attacks: “Many readers noted that our secretary of education does not seem to be. . . all that bright.”
In a May 2020 column contest for “worst political person” (Collins expanded her contest franchise as the Trump years wore on), she wrote: “I want to put a word in here for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is often unfairly overlooked when it comes to counting terrible people in the current government. This is because of her general ineptitude, and you should thank God every day this woman doesn’t know how to get things done.”
But if DeVos couldn’t get things done, how to explain the fact that this January, Collins’s employer featured on the Times’ editorial page a lengthy scolding of DeVos for doing too much? “The departing education secretary, Betsy DeVos, will be remembered as perhaps the most disastrous leader in the Education Department’s history,” the editorial board wrote, adding that her “lack of vision has been apparent in a variety of contexts.”
It’s not DeVos’s lack of vision the Times objects to; it was her unwillingness to play along with the liberal narrative about federal education policy. The Times editorial page spent paragraph after paragraph criticizing DeVos for saying that state and local governments were the ones to make decisions about keeping schools closed during the pandemic, for example. They complained that Joe Biden’s new secretary of education will have to find ways to deal with the “learning loss” caused by school closures and, by implication, DeVos’s failure to use federal authority the way they believe she should have. Nowhere did the Times mention the main driver of school closures and subpar remote-learning plans, which also happens to be the interest group that constituted DeVos’s most outspoken critic for the past four years: teachers’ unions.
The Times also breezed past what has arguably been among DeVos’s most important accomplishments as secretary: her restoration of due process with regard to Title IX and sexual-harassment and sexual-assault claims on college campuses. DeVos undid Obama-era guidance regarding sexual-harassment and sexual-assault claims made under Title IX that even many liberal observers (such as the New Yorker’s Jeannie Suk Gersen) had criticized for their ideologically motivated reasoning and presumption of guilt of the accused. And she did so using the appropriate channels of governance that the Obama administration had deliberately discarded in favor of bureaucratic fiat: the rule-making process that allowed for public comment and debate.
DeVos took a similar tack with regard to rescinding Obama-era policies directing schools that transgender students should be allowed to choose the bathrooms and locker rooms that conformed with their “gender identity.” DeVos’s education department also informed the state of Connecticut that it was in violation of federal law when it allowed biologically male athletes to compete in women’s sports.
DeVos additionally transformed the debate over discipline in public schools by rescinding the “restorative justice” policies pursued during the Obama administration—policies that, as with Title IX and sexual-assault allegations, Obama officials had made via guidance letters rather than normal rule-making procedures.
During his campaign for president, Joe Biden said repeatedly that he would reinstate the Obama-era guidance on discipline, even though it hampered schools’ ability to deal with unruly and disruptive students. Under that guidance, some schools had stopped suspending repeat offenders for fear of losing federal funding and facing federal investigation by Obama’s Department of Education. And he has promised to roll back due-process rights in Title IX sexual-assault and harassment cases, as well.
In the end, DeVos’s tenure as secretary will have succeeded in merely pausing the most aggressive federal-government overreach in education, but that in itself was no small feat. As Max Eden at the Manhattan Institute has noted, “from how elementary schools regulate bathrooms to how college campuses investigate sexual-assault allegations, many of the flash points in our national political debates have been intensified by unelected Department of Education bureaucrats interpreting long-standing civil rights law as a basis to enforce the latest social-justice cause.”
Which is why what the Times calls “wreckage” is, for small-government conservatives and those concerned with the growing radicalism of social-justice ideologues, a strong record for which even voters who disliked Trump should be grateful. Despite unfair media treatment and the usual bureaucratic intransigence, DeVos was able to do in four years what few thought could be accomplished in two terms. And she did so without compromising her principles or abusing her bureaucratic power as the Obama administration had done. She moved the ball forward on a number of long-overdue educational reforms as well as expanding the national conversation around school choice and charter schools. And she did all of this while serving a difficult president and facing a hostile media. You can call her polarizing, but don’t dare call DeVos incompetent.
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