Alan Zendell, July 12, 2020
We learned two things about Secretary of Education Betsy Devos today, when she was interviewed at length by Dana Bash of CNN. One is the reason she and Ben Carson, who knows as little about public housing as Devos does about education, are the only two major Department Secretaries who have been in the president’s cabinet for his entire administration. Both are perfect sycophants, marching in lockstep to every tune he plays.
We also learned why we hardly ever see Devos interviewed on live television – that is, interviews with real questions instead of the softballs thrown by some commentators. Devos is a disaster in such situations, as ineffective as a lead-footed tennis player trying to return a serve. She had apparently memorized a script that couldn’t have been more than two or three sentences, none of which addressed the reality of Trump’s self-serving demands to open public schools everywhere regardless of the consequences. But don’t just believe me, see for yourself. (The interview, which speaks for itself, is long but well worth watching.)
Ms. Bash was tenacious. She pressed Devos on three specific questions:
- Does the government have a plan to implement schools opening around the country?
- How should we interpret the president’s threat to withhold money from school systems that don’t comply with his direction, a threat which he lacks legal authority to enforce?
- Why did Devos attack the Fairfax County, VA school system’s re-opening plan, which offered parents choices of virtual (online) and in-class instruction with staggered schedules?
No matter how many ways Bash reworded her questions, however, Devos would only say every child needed to be in school, and school systems had to comply with CDC guidelines, which the president ridiculed last week. The administration wants to force a one size fits all approach to in-classroom teaching. Devos, when asked what a school system that found it impossible to comply should do, said they’d have to find a way to adapt. The president insists that brick and mortar schools open for face-to-face instruction. But most large systems in areas with high coronavirus infection rates offered opening plans similar to Fairfax County’s – some combination of virtual instruction with limited use of classrooms for students who attend in person. Bash told Devos she couldn’t have it both ways. Devos simply repeated her mantra.
So, which is it, Betsy? Fairfax County superintendent Scott Braband, who is responsible for the education of 188,000 public school students, says the physical infrastructure of Fairfax schools is not capable of satisfying CDC guidelines. To do so would require construction of the equivalent of five Pentagons, more than 32 million square feet of floor space. (The Pentagon, the largest office building in the world, comprises 6.5 million square feet.)
Ignoring the fact that it would be impossible to add that much classroom space in the six weeks remaining before school is scheduled to begin, that leaves the question of how financially strapped systems would pay for it. Both the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have made it clear that they will resist providing additional federal funding to help local jurisdictions, while still repeating the toothless threat to cut funds for systems that refuse to open in a manner that satisfies the president. Not surprisingly, in today’s highly partisan environment, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said $345 billion in additional funding would be required.
Devos seemed helpless under the barrage of facts and common sense thrown at her by Bash. Rather than offer anything resembling a government plan, she tried to change the subject. Never a fan of public education, she suggested that parents should have the option of finding other schools that could comply if their local public school system cannot. Seriously, Betsy? Is this about your career-long quest to undermine publicly funded education?
When confronted with data suggesting that a fourth of all public school teachers feel immune-compromised in some way and fear they would risk severe illness or death if they are forced to return to overcrowded (by CDC standards) schools, Devos said she feels for them but they would simply have to find a way. It’s comically embarrassing to trot someone as incompetent and uninformed as Devos out in front of the national media to defend the indefensible. If the situation weren’t so despicable, I’d feel sorry for her.
But let’s not forget the real villain in this piece. To salvage his re-election campaign, Donald Trump is willing to risk the health and lives of tens of millions of people. It’s immoral and cynical, clear evidence of his lack of fitness to lead the country.