Above you can see a segment of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ Sunday 60 Minutes interview that has been described by various as observers as “rough,” “an episode of Drunk History,” and “the human equivalent of when you didn’t do the reading.” Admittedly, the flop-sweat fake smile frozen on DeVos’ face doesn’t do her any favors, and this was not a great moment:
Lesley Stahl: Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?
Betsy DeVos: I have not—I have not—I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.
But if I’m reading the reaction to the clip correctly, what seems to be striking most people as ridiculous is DeVos’ advocacy of two particular ideas:
• That rewarding high-performing schools with more resources will compel low-performing schools to improve themselves.
• That school-choice programs should be expanded despite mixed or poor results in states such as Michigan.
The bad news for Democrats who found DeVos’ performance appalling is that these principles have been a crucial part of their party’s education policy for 17 years. Broadly speaking, the regime of compelling competition between schools by creating charter-school or school-choice programs and by rewarding those whose students do well on standardized tests was launched at a federal level by the No Child Left Behind Act; the NCLB was co-sponsored by Ted Kennedy and passed the Senate in 2001 with 87 votes. When Barack Obama became president, he created the Race to the Top program, which the Washington Post described at the time as a “competition for $4.35 billion in grants” that would “ease limits on charter schools” and “tie teacher pay to student achievement,” i.e. direct extra funds to already-successful schools.
(For a balanced take on the advantages and dangers of such policies, I recommend this piece on New York’s controversial Success Academy charter chain by education reporter Elizabeth Green, though I’d note that Green seems to be writing about the limits of what’s possible at public education’s current resource level rather than what might be possible if, say, we reversed the trillion-dollar tax cut for corporations and millionaires that was passed last year and spent the money instead on repairing schools and training and supporting teachers.)
One of the most prominent national #Resistance Democrats even has ties to DeVos’ own activist group:
DeVos is not qualified for her job and has more than earned her reputation for cluelessness. But if you gave her a Harvard degree, a history of employment at McKinsey or Goldman Sachs, and a little more public-speaking finesse, nothing DeVos told Lesley Stahl above would have bothered the Democrats who’ve been setting their party’s education policy for going on two decades.