Reality Checked at the Door as Anti-DeVos Rhetoric Reaches a Fever Pitch

In case you weren’t paying attention, something really big happened in the education world two days ago. Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s pick for secretary of education, had her confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. The hearing was actually supposed to happen earlier this month, but it was delayed “to accommodate the Senate schedule.” In other words, politics happened. But Republican leadership stuck to its word about not allowing Democratic complaints over ethics paperwork to prevent the confirmation process from moving forward, and so DeVos’s hearing went ahead.

You can watch the full hearing here if you are so inclined. I’m still waiting for a credible transcript to be released. In the meantime, I’d like to talk a little about the slanted coverage of the hearing I’ve seen.

I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a confirmation hearing before, but I have. They tend to amount to a whole lot of rhetorical jousting by senators looking to score points against their rivals’ picks, various attempts to force nominees to make (often absurd) commitments, and a cat-like ability to avoid answering trap questions on the part of the nominees themselves. They usually get partisan—and ugly—fast. There’s a reason these things are known as “murder boards.”

Last night’s hearing mostly fell into the same bucket, though you wouldn’t know that from reading the mainstream media’s hysterical accounts of the hearing, which tended to paint the affair as the craziest thing ever to happen in Congress. In truth, I think they might be the crazy ones for reacting to the hearing kind of like this:

I wrote in support of Mrs. DeVos’s nomination back in December and offered some ideas on how she should (and shouldn’t) proceed. I said then that I would be thrilled to have someone with her record of supporting choice and reform running the U.S. Department of Education, and I still feel that way after the hearing. I also had a good chuckle about the frantic, venomous statements by the teachers unions and other opponents. The latest wave of inaccurate, unhinged, and frankly shameful hysteria about DeVos’s largely mainstream reform positions has been even better.

As a friend from the Cato Institute said on Facebook: “I don’t know whether Betsy DeVos will be a great EdSec or not, but all the right people are screaming.” Interestingly, none of that screaming seems to acknowledge the ignorance and glaring hypocrisy of the Left during DeVos’s confirmation process. Don’t worry, though. I’ll go there.

Senator Bernie Sanders, after lecturing Americans about the coming oligarchy, curtly asked Mrs. DeVos during the hearing if she would be in her position had she and her family not contributed heavily to Republican causes—an obvious implication that she “bought” her way into her current consideration. He did not, however, bring up the fact the members of the DeVos family are mega-philanthropists who, in addition to playing in Republican races in the same way unions and billionaires play in Democratic races, have poured money into providing better opportunities for poor students. Rich Lowry recently wrote on National Review that “We now know that working to give poor kids more educational opportunities is considered a disqualifying offense for the Left.” That stings, but it’s true.

We’ve heard an awful lot about DeVos’s admittedly awkward reference to grizzly bears in conjunction with the guns-in-schools issue, but no one seems to remember Senator Sanders’ more concerning substantive attempt to force DeVos to commit to providing free college and child care for every family in the country. Everyone is shrieking about DeVos’s unwillingness to commit to slapping rigid accountability systems onto private schools involved in choice programs, but no one wants to mention the fact that there are very good reasons for not doing so if our goal is to produce the best possible results for students.

The media is falling all over itself to crucify DeVos for her slip-up on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but no one wants to mention that the law in question is written so loosely that its actual value to the families of kids with disabilities is dubious. And while the Democratic senators and the media rabidly attacked and ridiculed the notion of empowering parents to choose the schools their children need, none of them mentioned the fact that a possible answer to the problem of underserved disabled students could be—wait for it—expanded educational choice for kids with disabilities. Mind blown, I know.

I could go on and on, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll point out a painfully obvious distinction between those who have spoken in support of DeVos and those who have spoken against her. Those who support educational choice and reform have tended to speak, often emotionally, about helping parents and children who desperately need better opportunities. In other words, they focused on people. Those who have spoken against DeVos, on the other hand, have almost uniformly spoke about policies, institutions, and systems. They talked about things.

This distinction brings us back to key question that I think everyone in the education debate at any level has to ask: Are we in the business of protecting systems and institutions, or are we engaged in an effort to help people? I bet you can guess which view I take, but last night’s hearing made it abundantly clear that there are still a lot of powerful people in this country who are far more interested in advocating for their favorite inanimate objects and ethereal concepts than in having genuine conversations about how to effect real, meaningful change in the lives of as many real people as possible. That’s a sad truth to swallow, but a truth nonetheless. And it has to change.

Barring some sort of major catastrophe, Betsy DeVos will be confirmed as the next secretary of education (I wonder how Democrats feel about that “nuclear option” now). Here’s hoping her confirmation can be a first step toward refocusing the education debate on what really matters.

See you next time!