Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a House Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee in Washington, D.C., on May 24, 2017.
During the Obama administration, Education Secretary Arne Duncan got pretty steamed at people who opposed his school reform efforts, especially his support for the Common Core State Standards. In 2013, for example, he went after Core critics, telling a group of state schools superintendents:
"It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who – all of a sudden – their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary."
That same year, he said the Core "has become a rallying cry for fringe groups" – without noting that critics had come from all across the political spectrum. He frequently denounced the "status quo" as indefensible and criticized opponents as wanting to maintain that status quo.
Now we have a new education secretary, Republican Betsy DeVos, and she is taking attacks on people who disagree with her to a whole new level. She, too, has denounced the status quo as unacceptable and has suggested that those who oppose her want to maintain it. She said at the Brookings Institution in March:
"The reflexive question asked, often politely, by critics of choice is why should we not simply fix the broken schools first? If only schools received more funding, they say, the schools could provide a better learning environment for those being left behind.
"I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we should not pretend that the status quo is acceptable."
Actually, most critics of school choice don’t say that more money is the sole answer to improving troubled public schools. They are certainly concerned that many districts are actually starved for funds – just look at Oklahoma, where some schools are operating only four days a week because of financial woes – but they have long said that the standardized test-based accountability systems that were the focus of the administrations of presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have severely harmed public education.
Many DeVos critics agree with her about the failure of some of the "reform" programs of the past – but they don’t buy her solution, seeing the push to spend taxpayer dollars on nonpublic and religious education as simply a way to privatize public education.
Let’s look at parts of a speech she recently gave to the American Federation for Children’s National Policy Summit in Indianapolis. DeVos was a founder and leader of the AFC, an organization that favors school choice.
At the beginning of her speech, she boldly declared, "Education should not be a partisan issue."
"Sure, various approaches to education policy should be hotly debated, and they certainly are. But making sure that all of our kids get a great education – how could it be a partisan issue? Everyone – in both parties – should support equal opportunity in education, regardless of a child’s income, Zip code or family circumstances."
Of course, everyone should support equal opportunity in education, and sure, various approaches to education policy should be hotly debated. But, it turns out, she thinks that if you don’t agree with her about what "equal opportunity" means and how to achieve it, you are, well, ignorant. Here’s what she said later in the speech:
"The point is to provide quality options that serve students so each of them can grow. Every option should be held accountable, but they should be directly accountable to parents and communities, not to Washington, D.C., bureaucrats.
"In order to succeed, education must commit to excellence and innovation to better meet the needs of individual students. Defenders of our current system have regularly been resistant to any meaningful change. In resisting, these ‘flat-Earthers’ have chilled creativity and stopped American kids from competing at the highest levels. Our current framework is a closed system that relies on one-size-fits-all solutions. We need an open system that envelopes choices and embraces the future."
So if you think that her view of education in America is hurting public education or restricting opportunity for all students, then you are a flat-Earther. What’s that? Someone who believes the Earth is flat. There’s actually a Flat Earth Society, which is referred to in a piece on livescience.com that explains:
"First, a brief tour of the worldview of a flat-earther: While writing off buckets of concrete evidence that Earth is spherical, they readily accept a laundry list of propositions that some would call ludicrous. The leading flat-Earther theory holds that Earth is a disc with the Arctic Circle in the center and Antarctica, a 150-foot-tall wall of ice, around the rim. NASA employees, they say, guard this ice wall to prevent people from climbing over and falling off the disc. Earth’s day and night cycle is explained by positing that the sun and moon are spheres measuring 32 miles (51 kilometers) that move in circles 3,000 miles (4,828 km) above the plane of the Earth. (Stars, they say, move in a plane 3,100 miles up.) Like spotlights, these celestial spheres illuminate different portions of the planet in a 24-hour cycle. Flat-earthers believe there must also be an invisible ‘antimoon’ that obscures the moon during lunar eclipses.
"Furthermore, Earth’s gravity is an illusion, they say."
In other speeches, she has repeatedly attacked the traditional public education system, calling it a "dead end," among other things, and made clear that she doesn’t think much of the people who support it.
Incidentally, in her flat-Earther speech, she noted that Annette Polly Williams, a longtime Democratic state legislator in Wisconsin, was the author of the first school-choice legislation in the United States. Here’s what DeVos didn’t say: Williams changed her mind about school choice and accused voucher and other choice advocates of taking advantage of African-Americans. Does DeVos know that?