The latest flap surrounding Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stems from her inability to answer basic questions about schools during an interview she gave to Lesley Stahl on CBS’s “60 Minutes” on Sunday night. But it wasn’t the first time she has revealed a lack of knowledge about fundamental education issues in front of a big audience — or said something that infuriated advocates of public schools.
Here are nine things DeVos has said — or refused to say — in recent years that explain her views and philosophy about education in the United States:
1) In 2015, before she became education secretary in the administration of President Trump, she said flatly that traditional public schools are “a dead end.”
That encapsulates the longtime view that DeVos has held — and spent decades advocating. She and her husband, Amway heir Richard DeVos, have spent time and money on school choice advocacy for decades. They were instrumental in pushing through Michigan’s charter school law in 1993, and they support programs that use public money for private and religious school tuition — a position that critics say shows her desire to privatize U.S. public education. As education secretary, DeVos has said repeatedly that her definition of holding school districts “accountable” is how many alternatives to traditional public schools they offer to families.
Here’s a quote from a speech she gave at the 2015 SXSW EDU convention in Austin:
We are the beneficiaries of start-ups, ventures, and innovation in every other area of life, but we don’t have that in education because it’s a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market. It’s a monopoly, a dead end. And the best and brightest innovators and risk-takers steer way clear of it. As long as education remains a closed system, we will never see the education equivalents of Google, Facebook, Amazon, PayPal, Wikipedia or Uber. We won’t see any real innovation that benefits more than a handful of students.”
2) Then there was the infamous comment she made about schools and guns and bears. During her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) asked whether DeVos would agree that guns don’t 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 is often held up as an example of her inability to articulate an answer to a question in a setting where many expected her to be more prepared, such as her confirmation hearing or her “60 Minutes” interview.
When the Senate voted in February 2017 to confirm her as education secretary, she became the first Cabinet nominee in history to need a vice president, in this case Mike Pence, to break a tie. That underscored her status as the most controversial in a pool of controversial Trump nominees.
3) Just three weeks after becoming education secretary, DeVos displayed her unwavering focus on school choice — and a misunderstanding of the history of historically black colleges and universities by calling these institutions “pioneers” of “school choice.”
Actually, black students were barred from white institutions and had no choice but to go to schools specifically created for them. Here’s what the statement said in part:
“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.
4) She has refused to say whether the federal government should prevent private schools that accept public money from discriminating against some students. She said it was up to the states.
At a May 2017 budget hearing before the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) said one private school in Indiana that accepts publicly funded vouchers maintains it may deny admission to LGBT students or those coming from families with “homosexual or bisexual activity.” Clark asked DeVos whether she would tell the state of Indiana it could not discriminate that way if it accepted federal funding, and she asked DeVos what she would say if a voucher school rejected African American students but a state “said it was okay.”
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 . . .”
5) And she repeatedly disparages people who disagree with her views (though she isn’t the first U.S. education secretary to do). At a May 2017 speech she gave in Indianapolis to the American Federation for Children’s National Policy Summit, an organization promoting school choice that she founded and led, DeVos said:
“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.”
6) Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord on June 1, 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.”
Not only was that an example of her refusal to directly answer many questions, but it also suggested the U.S. education secretary supports Trump’s view that human-caused climate change is not real — despite overwhelming scientific evidence that it is.
7) During her interview with Stahl on “60 Minutes,” DeVos acknowledged she had never “intentionally” visited a low-performing traditional public school, and she made this unusual statement: “I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them.”
Here’s part of the conversation about what happens to underperforming traditional public schools when children leave for alternatives and take funding with them:
STAHL: “Why take away money from that school that’s not working — to bring them up to a level where they are, that school is working?”
DEVOS: “Well, we should be funding and investing in students, not in school, school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems.”
STAHL: “Okay. But what about the kids who are back at the school that’s not working? What about those kids?”
DEVOS: “Well, in places where there have been, where there is, a lot of choice that’s been introduced, Florida, for example, the studies show that when there’s a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools actually, the results get better, as well.”
STAHL: “Now, has that happened in Michigan? We’re in Michigan. This is your home state.”
DEVOS: “Yes, well, there’s lots of great options and choices for students here.”
STAHL: “Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?”
DEVOS: “I don’t know. Overall, I, I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.”
STAHL: “The whole state is not doing well.”
DEVOS: “Well, there are certainly lots of pockets where this, the students are doing well and . . .”
STAHL: “No, but your argument that if you take funds away that the schools will get better is not working in Michigan, where you had a huge impact and influence over the direction of the school system here.”
DEVOS: “I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them.”
STAHL: “The public schools here are doing worse than they did.”
DEVOS: “Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it.”
STAHL: “Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?”
DEVOS: “I have not, I have not, I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.”
STAHL: “Maybe you should.”
DEVOS: “Maybe I should. Yes.”
8) At her 2017 confirmation hearing before the Senate panel, DeVos seemed not to understand 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 states should have the right to decide whether to enforce IDEA. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) 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.
HASSAN: “Do you stand by your statement a few minutes ago that [IDEA] should be up to the states whether to follow it?”
DEVOS: “Federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play.”
HASSAN: “So were you unaware, when I just asked you about the IDEA, that it was a federal law?”
DEVOS: “I may have confused it.”
She did confuse it in a most fundamental way.
9) 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, she set new rules making it harder for accusers to prove their accusations. During a Sept. 7 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.