First, they were “defenders of the status quo.” Or “defenders of the ‘system.’ ”
Those were the insults Education Secretary Betsy DeVos hurled at people who don’t like her brand of school reform. The insults were aimed at people in the education world, especially teachers unions, who oppose her brand of school reform — which favors “choice” and the use of public money for private and religious education. She was accusing them of caring not about children but about themselves, as she made plain in one of the first speeches she delivered as education secretary, on Feb. 23: “Defenders of the status quo will stop at nothing to protect their special interests and their gig.”
To be sure, “defenders of the status quo” was not original to DeVos. The term was used over and over by Arne Duncan, education secretary for seven years under President Barack Obama, when he attacked critics of Obama’s standardized test-based reform program. But DeVos and her speechwriters seem to like it just fine, too.
Now she has added a new insult to her repertoire. Instead of “defenders,” she used this term in her recent speech at Harvard University: “sycophant of the ‘system.’ ” The full section in which she uses this refers to lotteries in which families win seats for their children in charter schools in those areas where there is a bigger demand than supply:
I suggest that any sycophant of the “system” or skeptic of choice visit one of these lotteries. Watch the faces of parents — many of whom struggle to get by every day — hidden in their hands or covered with tears because they didn’t “win” a new future for their son or daughter. This scene is heart-wrenching and downright disgraceful. Children’s futures aren’t to be gambled.
Let’s not dwell on the fact that many charter lotteries are done digitally or by paper, or on the unnecessarily exploitative nature of lotteries in which families gather for a Bingo-like process in which “winners” are called out. Or on the movie to which she referred in her speech just before this statement, a 2010 documentary film titled “Waiting for Superman” that showed a warped view of the education system and ignored the fundamental problems facing public education.
Let’s just look at the words themselves. She’s gone from “defender,” which means someone who is defending or guarding something that they presumably feel has value, to using “sycophant,” which is far more pejorative. A Google search of her speeches reveals that this was the first time she’s used the word “sycophant,” which means someone who mindlessly, or obsequiously, goes along with someone for their own advantage. A suck-up, if you will. I’ll bet you can think of some people like that in Washington right now, if you give it a second.
DeVos, then, is saying that those who support traditional public schools don’t really have principles and go along with something to get something for themselves. There is no room in her worldview, then, for people who have genuine disagreements with her on policy and principle. She knows best.
The other phrase in that sentence, “skeptic of choice,” is one that she has used in some form for months, again telegraphing her belief that anybody who doesn’t wholeheartedly agree with her — without a single question about the efficacy of her approach — is not only wrong but unprincipled, because if they did see one of the lotteries she describes they couldn’t possibly believe what they believe.
Words matter — a lot. Her new insults suggest a growing intolerance by DeVos and her education allies for people who don’t agree with her. That would be right in line with others in the Trump administration but not something that augers well for those who believe that public education is a seminal part of the American democratic experience and that serious reform, with input from a range of views, is needed to ensure equity and quality in every school.
Duncan was hard on his critics, too, at one point going after “white suburban moms” who disagreed with his policies pushing high-stakes tests. In the end, that didn’t go so well for him. The teachers unions turned against him, as did a lot of parents — not only white — who found his policies more harmful than helpful in establishing public schools that ensure equity and a quality education for all students. You’d think his experience could be a cautionary tale for DeVos, but don’t hold your breath. He knew better, and now so does she.