The nation’s largest organization representing classroom teachers, the three million-member National Education Association, is getting plenty of guff over its decision to stonewall U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
The NEA’s latest rejection note to the secretary came from the organization’s charismatic and blunt-spoken president Lily Eskelsen Garcia who, in an interview with Education Week, said about DeVos, “There is no reason to trust this woman.”
Garcia’s remarks closely follow a keynote address she gave at the NEA’s annual gathering of delegates in which she proclaimed, “I will not allow the National Education Association to be used by Donald Trump or by Betsy DeVos… I do not trust their motives… There will be no photo op.”
The minute DeVos became the nomination, the NEA joined the broad, bipartisan coalition opposing her. And since DeVos took office, the teacher’s group has declared, “There will be no relationship with Betsy DeVos.”
The NEA’s staunch opposition to DeVos, and Garcia’s blunt statement of non-cooperation, have stirred the ire of those accustomed to the club-like chumminess of the education policy establishment in the nation’s capital.
“Refusing to talk to somebody is something I expect more of middle schoolers than of the leadership of organizations,” Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute told the education reporter for New Republic.
That article, and others, have noted that public-school supporters, including the NEA and the other national teachers’ association, the American Federation of Teachers, have differed on how to relate to DeVos.
But does Garcia’s contention that DeVos is simply not to be trusted have any validity?
Objective sources have no trouble arguing that President Donald Trump is not to be trusted. It’s become commonplace to express strong doubts about almost anything Trump says, including about the gravest of matters. Even the former director of the FBI couldn’t trust the man.
So if it’s reasonable to argue that the nation’s president is not to be trusted, why is it somehow untoward to say the same of a secretary serving under his regime?
There are, in fact, numerous concerns that cast doubt on DeVos’s trustworthiness.
Dark money past
First, it’s almost impossible to separate DeVos and her service in the education department from her past in dark-money politics.
Jane Meyer notes, in her book Dark Money, that when Betsy Prince, the education secretary’s maiden name, married into the DeVos family, she brought together two of Michigan’s most politically powerful families.
“Betsy DeVos, who eventually became the chairwoman of Michigan’s Republican Party, was said to be every bit as politically ambitious as her husband, if not more so,” Meyer notes, a reference to Dick DeVos who, along with Betsy, was a major donor on the Koch Brother “list” of “philanthropist, bent on using billions of dollars from their private foundations to alter the direction of American politics.”
Meyer highlights remarks DeVos made in a now infamous op-ed for The Hill in which she wrote,
I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy… We expect a return on our investment.
It’s hard to believe anyone uttering such a strongly expressed intent to reap the rewards of political donations would suddenly have a change of heart once in office.
Indeed, news of DeVos and her family donating to Republicans associated with the Trump administration continues to leak out.
As Politico reports, DeVos and her extended family contributed “at least $22,500 to one of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees for the judge’s campaign for a state Supreme Court seat” in Michigan.
The donations occurred before DeVos was nominated, but the gifts show the tight circle of money and influence DeVos inhabits with the Trump administration.
More recently, in the special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District which pitted Republican Karen Handel against Democrat Jon Osoff in the most expensive House race in U.S. history, members of the DeVos family donated at least $27,000 to Handel, according to The Hill.
Evasiveness in answering questions
DeVos, in fact, continues to evidence all the symptoms of being someone who is less than straightforward in her dealings with others.
DeVos has “mastered the art of the non-answer,” education journalist Valerie Strauss writes on her blog at the Washington Post.
“Sometimes, for example, she offers a response that deliberately doesn’t answer the precise question,” Strauss writes. More frequently, she diverts the subject of the question to “her favorite education topic, giving parents choices other than their neighborhood traditional public school.”
At other times, DeVos simply seems to have no grasp of what the subject of the question was about, as she most famously exhibited in her confirmation hearing when she couldn’t answer questions about federally guaranteed rights of special education students in schools and about whether standardized testing should be used to assess student growth or subject area proficiency.
A penchant for secrecy
When DeVos isn’t having difficulty answering straightforward questions, she is operating in what appears to be a cone of silence.
Rights organizations have accused DeVos and the department she heads of giving Congress “the silent treatment” on how the rights of transgender students will be upheld, since the Trump administration rescinded federal guidance that was provided by the Obama administration.
Advocates for religious minorities have noticed DeVos has been shockingly silent on whether she will press for a federal voucher plan that would send federal money to private schools that discriminate against students on the basis of religion.
News organizations covering higher education have reported on recent lapses in public comment coming from DeVos about the department’s decision to delay and renegotiate Obama-era regulations of for-profit colleges.
Last month, Democratic senators concerned with recent actions taken by DeVos’s department regarding civil rights investigations and a decision to de-emphasize individual complaints of discrimination sent DeVos a letter calling attention to their concerns. To date, the senators have received no reply.
A significant reason the NEA expressed its lack of trust in DeVos is due to her non-response to questions the organization posed to her when she took office.
“If DeVos doesn’t answer the union by September 1,” reports Education Week, “it will call for her resignation, according to the motion, passed at the union’s annual convention here.
Fittingly, when the EdWeek reporter asked for Education Department’s comment on the NEA’s resolution, “DeVos’s spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond.”
A cloak of cronyism
While DeVos gives the silent treatment to news organizations, public officials, rights advocates, and educators, she maintains an open-door policy for those prone to agree with her.
DeVos has angered Democratic officials over her willingness to meet in private with Republican lawmakers who support her agenda for charter schools and vouchers.
Recently, her calendar included a closed-door meeting with the Pacific Research Institute that promotes school choice and has a history of getting financial support from the Koch Brothersto turn back air pollution regulations.
In her travels around the country, she still makes time to meet with influential Republican party donors.
Her reputation for cronyism isn’t at all helped by brother Erik Prince, who still operates the private mercenary service he founded, Blackwater, and has his own secret meetings with the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and White House operative Steven Bannon.
DeVos, in the meantime, invested between $100,000 and $250,000 in a defense contracting firm owned by her son-in-law that could potentially benefit from Prince’s back door negotiations.
Among her and her husband’s other investments, is a $5 million to $25 million stake in a company that markets a bogus method of training people’s brains to cure them of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety, stress, depression, poor sleep, memory loss, and migraines.
Nothing to be concerned with here… move along.
So there are good reasons why educators such as Lilly Eskelsen Garcia and her NEA brothers and sisters shouldn’t trust Betsy Devos. And you shouldn’t either.