The Trump administration's national security scandals may have obscured Betsy DeVos's rough start as the new Secretary of Education, but her stumbles right out the gate reveal disturbing characteristics of her leadership.
Unfortunately, the least significant gaffe is the one that has gotten the most notoriety so far. As Politico reports, "In quoting civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, the Department of Education on Sunday sent out a tweet misspelling his name as "DeBois." And then it sent out an apology that misspelled the word 'apologies'" as "apologizes."
— Judah Friedlander (@JudahWorldChamp) February 12, 2017
What's even more embarrassing: The misspelled shout out to Du Bois took place during Black History Month.
As part of a presidential administration that's already distinguished itself for prominent typos in President Donald Trump's tweets and on official White House releases, it's perhaps not surprising that DeVos and her team would also be sloppy on social media. But she is head of the Department of Education. The public mocking is to be expected.
Nevertheless, there are gaffes, and then there are disturbing omens of what may be in store for the nation's schools under the Trump-DeVos regime.
Perhaps most ominous is the report, from an outlet focused on developmental disability news, that a day after DeVos took her oath of office, content relating to IDEA disappeared from the Education Department's website. IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is the federal government's program that guarantees students with disabilities and their parents have access to free education that is appropriate for their needs.
DeVos, recall, had one of her most difficult moments during her rocky confirmation hearing when she became "confused" about enforcing IDEA. While answering a question about the federal program, she promised that under her leadership its enforcement would be "up to the states."
"Officials said the issue should be no cause for alarm…nothing more than a technical glitch," according to reporter Michelle Diament. And to be fair, the decision to take down the material likely came before DeVos took office. But Diament also notes, "Last month, nearly every disability reference was removed from the White House website after the Trump administration took over. To date, the online presence of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. contains just a handful of references to disabilities."
A week later after the disappearance, with no sign of the " glitch" being fixed, U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Patty Murray (D-Mo.) issued a statement demanding that the department explain why content "dedicated to empowering and assisting students with disabilities and their families" had become deactivated and requesting its restoration.
So far, the department hasn't replied.
DeVos's Pencil Privilege
Speaking of glitches, DeVos also found herself embroiled in controversy again when, on her first day on the job, she said on her personal social media outlet, in what she must have thought was a safe and funny tweet, "Day 1 on the job is done, but we’re only getting started. Now where do I find the pencils? :)"
— Badass Teachers Asso (@BadassTeachersA) February 9, 2017
"Not in the thousands of public schools that can barely afford supplies. Looking forward to you cleaning that lil issue up," came the first retort, and the tweet thread didn't get any nicer after that as hundreds of teachers and public school advocates blasted her for the remark.
Why would what the billionaire-turned-bureaucrat thought was likely a harmless comment receive such invective? Anyone taking the reins of the Department of Education, or who just happens to be paying attention, should know the answer to that question.
As many of the teachers responding to her comment reminded her, DeVos should know that schools have become so chronically starved of resources, most teachers have to buy a lot of their own supplies — even pencils. "Virtually all teachers wind up paying out of pocket for supplies," reports Money magazine, based on the most recent survey asking teachers about their supply purchases. "On average, most spent nearly $500 last year, and one in 10 spent $1,000 or more. All told, a total of $1.6 billion in school supply costs is shifted from parents — or, increasingly, from cash-strapped districts — onto teachers themselves."
The cost of school supplies has shifted to teachers because education funding in most places in the country is in a funding crisis.
The nation has drastically cut education funding since the Great Recession, and studies show most schools aren't getting the same level of funding they got in 2008. Further, schools that often need funding the most, because they serve low-income and other children that cost the most to educate, often get the least.
But it's quite likely DeVos — who grew up in privilege, married into even greater wealth and attended private schools filled with students with similar backgrounds — may not actually know what it's like in the schools where most American parents send their children. Especially since she lives in a massive compound on 100 acres of lakefront property. She and her husband Dick DeVos own three vacation homes in Windsor, Florida along with other vacation residences.
Taking Refuge on the Right
As a sign that the controversy she continues to stir may be getting to her, DeVos sought refuge in a media circle she likely feels more comfortable in.
As Education Week reports, "In her first print and radio interviews since taking the helm," DeVos turned to — not to outlets that her detractors are apt to listen to, nor to journalists that could be described as "neutral" — but to the safe womb of right-wing media in her home state of Michigan.
For her first interview in print media, DeVos chose an opinion page editor from the Michigan-based Detroit News, which endorsed her for secretary. For her first radio interview, she chose Paul W. Smith, a conservative talk show host in Detroit who also occasionally substitutes for Rush Limbaugh.
The most telling thing about both interviews is DeVos's reaffirmation of the ideology that has been the focal point of many of the concerns about her.
When asked by Detroit News deputy editorial page editor Ingrid Jacques about what she hopes for her legacy as Secretary, DeVos replies that what she wants most is to ensure her leadership has "allowed students across this country, particularly those who are today struggling most, to find and go to a school where they are going to thrive in and grow and become everything they hope to be."
In her radio interview with Smith, DeVos states her goal is to ensure that all schools "meet the need of every child that they serve, and in the cases that they don't, parents and students should have other alternatives."
DeVos seems to have little to say about what she intends to do to improve the schools we already have. Her emphasis on encouraging parents and students to "find" new schools and creating those "alternatives" is why critics of DeVos continue to worry she is all about abandoning existing schools and replacing them with what she prefers to see instead.
Given her lack of experience with public education and its governance, it's perhaps understandable DeVos would not be very knowledgeable about policy ideas that have helped educators transform schools our children are already in.
But what's most concerning is that she doesn't seem the least bit interested in those policy ideas either.
In fact, her other favorite talking point is to refer to public education as a "status quo" needing to be assailed from the outside, as if she believes changing public education is something that needs to be done to it, not with it.
That DeVos views education more so through this political lens — a lens bequeathed to her from her background of privilege and wealth — rather than the lens of wise public policy portends a near future of ideological warfare over basic education justice in the country, for example, over whether the rights of students with disabilities are upheld.
From what we've seen of Betsy DeVos so far, that's the most disturbing sign of what's to come. Even if she can't spell.