One of the more amusing Twitter memes to arise in the wake of last fall's presidential debates was the Donald Trump book report, brief synapses of famous works of literature written like a teen trying to fake his way through a school assignment. Here's a fave: "Uncle Tom's Cabin, worst cabin in the inner city. Terrible schools. Nasty women & bad hombres everywhere."
While Mr. Trump's controversial education nominee, Betsy DeVos, is a wealthy and high-profile advocate for school vouchers who was bound to endure an icy reception from pro-public school Democrats, what was shocking in her appearance Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions was how often she sounded a bit like one of those Trump book reports. Or, as Mr. Trump's nominee to be energy secretary might explain it, she was "all hat and no cattle."
Ms. DeVos didn't seem to have a handle on what's going on with sexual assaults on college campuses, refused to oppose any big-footed federal effort to deny state and local governments the ability to create gun-free zones around schools including Sandy Hook Elementary School, seemed unaware of the nation's lack of affordable child care and demonstrated little understanding of waste, fraud and abuse at for-profit colleges. Perhaps the most telling exchange was her failure to differentiate two common measures of student performance — growth and proficiency.
That may seem a small matter to those who have never had to deal with education policy, but few who have ever encountered standardizing testing or No Child Left Behind — from teachers and administrators to parent volunteers — could stumble over the difference between hitting a benchmark (proficiency) and improving over time (growth). That wasn't a minor stumble by an educational establishment outsider, as former Sen. Joe Lieberman described her at the start of the hearing, but evidence she's about as qualified to direct federal education policy as a third grader.
Ms. DeVos' supporters like to depict her as a courageous advocate for students. And because she sees benefit in vouchers and charter schools, they believe she's an easy target for teacher unions who view support for private or quasi-public schools as a drain from public school resources (and the union's political clout). Alas, if only it were that simple.
Our own views of charter schools — and those of many Americans, we strongly suspect — are simply more nuanced than that. We have long supported charter schools and even providing a limited degree of public support for low-income students to attend private schools when they provide demonstrably better educational opportunities. But we also believe in robust public school funding and equal accountability for both public and private schools.
Unfortunately, that's clearly not how Ms. DeVos interprets the world. She views public schools as an irredeemable morass and privates as a salvation even when they underperform public school peers. Her vision of school "choice" is to leave the decision entirely up to families even in the case of for-profit private schools that are demonstrably worse than publics.
"My orientation is around parents and children," she told one questioner who pointed to evidence that charter schools in his state underperform. "When parents choose charter schools, they are doing so because they think it's a great choice for their children."
That point of view might work great for those wealthy enough to have only an array of good choices to fit their children's needs, but that's often not the case with the low-income students that Ms. DeVos and her Republican allies so often claim they want to help. Charter schools have not brought salvation to cities like Detroit in the nominee's own home state, not for lack of political support but for lack of quality options. Here in Baltimore, we have some charter schools that are exceptional and others that aren't. There's simply nothing magical about operating outside of the traditional public school model.
What Tuesday's hearing demonstrated is that Ms. DeVos simply lacks the experience to deal with national education policy and perhaps even the issue of school choice. This is no outsider, this is a true-believing billionaire charter/private school backer, a one-trick pony wholly unprepared for such an important position with its broad range of concerns. That her confirmation hearing took place even before an ethics investigation is complete and senators were each limited to five minutes of questioning is shameful. The problem with Ms. DeVos is not that she's been a forceful advocate for privatization, it's that she couldn't even convincingly fake her way through a fleeting book report of a hearing.