‘Potential grizzlies’ and Betsy DeVos’s other greatest hits

She leaves behind a record that includes a series of statements that were, collectively, more than an unfortunate series of gaffes. Whether it was testifying before Congress or tweeting or giving a speech or sitting down for a network television interview, DeVos said things that critics saw as proof that she lacked a basic understanding of key issues and was out of her depth as education secretary.

From the start, Democrats opposed DeVos, a billionaire from Michigan, because she had spent decades as an activist denigrating public schools and working to expand alternatives to them. Those included charter schools and programs that allowed students to attend private and religious schools with public funds paying the bills. Her repeated use of the term “government schools” instead of “public schools” underscored her views.

But she was a hero to people who were suspicious of public institutions, including public schools, and wanted to expand school choice.

In 2015, two years before she became education secretary, she gave a speech in which she said public schools were a “dead end” and that “government really sucks” — leading critics to worry that the only reason she wanted to run the federal education agency was to undermine it. In fact, she repeatedly said she wouldn’t mind if she worked herself out of a job.

The very day she sat down in the U.S. Senate for her confirmation hearing on Jan. 17, 2017, she said a number of things that were surprising for someone about to take over the Education Department. One comment became iconic — about guns and potential grizzly bears.

When Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) asked her whether she agreed that guns do not belong in schools, she said: “I will refer back to Sen. [Mike] Enzi and the school he was talking about in Wyoming. I think probably there, I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.”

That statement has since been held up as an early example of her inability to answer a question in a setting where she was expected to be more prepared.

During the hearing, she also showed a lack of basic understanding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA, which requires public schools to provide free and appropriate education to all students with disabilities.

DeVos said that states should have the right to decide whether to enforce IDEA, but when Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) later told her that IDEA is a federal civil rights law and asked DeVos if she stood by her statement that it was up to the states to follow it, DeVos responded, “Federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play.” Hassan then asked, “So were you unaware when I just asked you about the IDEA that it was a federal law?” DeVos responded, “I may have confused it.”

She later said she was committed to enforcing special education law.

When it came time for the full Senate to approve her nomination, it was a tie. For the first time in history, the vice president, in this case Mike Pence, had to come to break a tie for a Cabinet member to be confirmed. That’s how controversial she was from the start.

And things didn’t get better for her management of her own brand.

In February 2017, she started receiving security from the U.S. Marshals Service, the only Trump Cabinet member to receive it, after she was prevented from entering a middle school by protesters. The protection cost millions of dollars each year, and DeVos was mocked for it even while her aides pointed out that she was the target of repeated security threats.

Just three weeks after becoming education secretary, DeVos displayed her relentless focus on school choice — and ignorance of Black history and the creation of historically Black colleges and universities — by calling HBCU’s “pioneers” of “school choice.”

The truth was that Black students were barred from White institutions and had no choice but to go to schools specifically created for them. It was anything but their choice. Here’s what her statement said in part about HBCU’s:

“They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education. They saw that the system wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution. HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”

She later walked back the “pioneers” of “school choice” notion in a series of tweets.

But a few months later, in May 2017, her comment was still stinging seniors who were graduating at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, an HBCU where DeVos had been invited to give the commencement speech. Tens of thousands of people had signed petitions asking the school to disinvite her, but it didn’t.

She was booed so loudly by students that university president Edison O. Jackson interrupted DeVos and said to them: “If this behavior continues, your degrees will be mailed to you. Choose which way you want to go.” DeVos finished her commencement address.

Two weeks after that graduation, DeVos went before Congress to testify before the House subcommittee on labor, health and human services, education and related agencies about the Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal, which would cut $10.6 billion — or more than 13 percent — from education programs and reinvest $1.4 billion of the savings into promoting school choice. (Congress did not agree to the cuts.)

Devos made it clear she believed that states should have the flexibility to decide whether private schools that accept students with publicly funded vouchers can discriminate against any student for any reason. And that states should have the flexibility to decide whether students with disabilities who are using publicly funded vouchers to pay for private-school tuition should still be protected under the IDEA federal law protecting students with disabilities.

At one point during the hearing, Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) mentioned a private school in Indiana that accepted vouchers and that took as its right the ability to deny admission to students who are LGBT or who come from a family where there is “homosexual or bisexual activity.” Clark asked DeVos whether she would tell the state of Indiana that it could not allow such discrimination if it were to accept federal funding through a new school choice program.

DeVos responded: “Well again, the Office of Civil Rights and our Title IX protections are broadly applicable across the board, but when it comes to parents making choices on behalf of their students … ”

Clark interrupted and said: “This isn’t about parents making choices, this is about the use of federal dollars. Is there any situation? Would you say to Indiana that school cannot discriminate against LGBT students if you want to receive federal dollars? Or would you say the state has the flexibility?”

DeVos said: “I believe states should continue to have flexibility in putting together programs … ”

In February 2020, she was asked the same question at another congressional hearing — and her answer wasn’t any different. Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) asked DeVos whether private and religious schools that enroll students funded with taxpayer dollars should be allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, religion or anything else. Currently, many schools that enroll children with publicly funded scholarships legally discriminate against various groups of students.

Again, DeVos refused to say schools should not be allowed to discriminate.

FRANKEL: Is there anything in your proposal that requires nondiscrimination? So for example, can somebody keep a gay student out? Or can they discriminate on the basis of a religion?

DEVOS: The key to school choice and education freedom is families and students voluntarily choose the place that works for them.

FRANKEL: I just want to understand this. So they can choose to go to a school that only allows a certain religion or a certain gender or a certain race? Is that correct?

DEVOS: Many schools have unique missions, different missions.

FRANKEL: The answer is yes. I answered it for you.

On June 1, 2017, Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord and DeVos issued a statement applauding the move. When reporters asked her a few days later about her views on climate change, she responded: “Certainly, the climate changes. Yes.”

Her response was another example of her refusal to directly answer a question posed to her about an important issue, and it suggested that the education secretary of the United States supported Trump’s view that human-caused climate change is not real — despite overwhelming scientific evidence that it is.

In 2017, DeVos rescinded Obama-era Title IX guidelines on how schools should handle allegations of sexual assault, saying that too many men were falsely accused, and she later issued a new regulation making it harder for accusers to prove their accusations.

During a Sept. 7, 2017 speech on the subject, she said: “Survivors, victims of a lack of due process, and campus administrators have all told me that the current approach does a disservice to everyone involved.”

Actually, survivors had pleaded with her not to change the rules, saying the Obama regulations gave them a voice they did not previously have. Many were furious at her decision.

Late in September 2017, she stoked the anger of millions of people who had taken student loans to attend predatory for-profit colleges by mocking the idea what is known as the “borrower defense to repayment” rule. The rule, which dates to the 1990s, eliminates federal loans for students who attended colleges that used illegal or deceptive tactics to persuade them to borrow money to attend.

She said in a speech seen as defending for-profit education: “While students should have protections from predatory practices, schools and taxpayers should also be treated fairly as well. Under the previous rules, all one had to do was raise his or her hands to be entitled to so-called free money.”

When DeVos was legally required to discharge thousands of claims for loan forgiveness that had been approved by the Obama administration, she added on the form: “with extreme displeasure.”

(In October, a federal judge blamed DeVos for harming borrowers and rejected a proposed settlement between the Trump administration and defrauded borrowers. He did this after the Education Department revealed it had rejected 94 percent of debt relief claims it had proceeded since the agreement was reached months earlier.)

In March 2018, DeVos was interviewed by Leslie Stahl on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” She was widely seen as having stumbled through it, with Stahl repeatedly challenging DeVos.

At one point, Stahl suggested that the education secretary visit underperforming public schools to learn about their problems. DeVos responded, “Maybe I should.”

DeVos acknowledged she had never “intentionally” visited a low-performing traditional public school, and said this: “I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them.”

While that may sound ridiculously obvious, it was a sentiment she repeated, and it represented a broader philosophy that she had adopted from the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had been secretary of education and science earlier in her career.

In July 2017, DeVos had appeared at the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and framed her keynote speech around Thatcher’s philosophy of society, saying that it was her own, as well. DeVos said:

What, exactly, is education if not an investment in students? I was reminded of something another secretary of education once said. Her name was Margaret. No, not Spellings — Thatcher. Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on “society.” But, “who is society,” she [Thatcher] asked. “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families.” …

The Iron Lady was right then and she’s still right today.

DeVos appeared before a congressional committee on March 26, 2019, to defend the fiscal 2020 budget plan for the Education Department, which proposed a 12 percent cut over 2019. In her opening testimony, she said:

“[S]tudents may be better served by being in larger classes, if by hiring fewer teachers, a district or state can better compensate those who have demonstrated high ability and outstanding results.”

Research has shown that smaller class sizes improve student achievement.

On April 2, 2019, DeVos tweeted that a scholarship program she wanted Congress to pass was “privately funded.” Not exactly.

DeVos and Trump tried repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to persuade Congress to approve $5 billion to be used to grant tax credits for individuals and groups who donate to help children attend private and religious schools. All private donations would receive a 100 percent tax credit. They called it “Education Freedom Scholarships,” and the money would have come out of the Treasury Department’s budget.

She apparently sees tax credits as a simple reduction in someone’s tax burden. What tax credits also do is reduce the amount of money the government takes in. Furthermore, using taxpayer money to help students leave traditional school districts reduces per-pupil funding on which districts rely.

But DeVos kept insisting that the program would not be funded with federal funds, as she said in the tweet. On Oct. 1, 2019, she made a speech, saying the program “doesn’t spend a single dollar of government money.”

She said the same thing at the February 2020 congressional hearing in her discussion with Clark.

DEVOS: I need to correct you on the nature of the Education Freedom Scholarships program proposal. It is a federal tax credit that would be the recipient of voluntary …

[They talk over each other.]

DEVOS: I want to make sure that you have an understanding of what the proposal is.

CLARK: I understand. Tax credits are federal funding.

DEVOS: No, they are not. They are voluntary contributions in advance of paying your taxes to the federal government.

DeVos and her allies also sought to redefine “public education.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) had declared that private and religious schools that accept scholarships funded by tax credits should be considered “public education.”

And DeVos tweeted her support on Feb. 15, 2019, saying: “Completely agree, @GovRonDesantis. “If the taxpayer is paying for education, it’s public education. We have parents who are lining up for a tax credit scholarship. They would not do that if the program was not succeeding.”

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