Rotherham: Why Won’t Betsy DeVos Answer Hard Questions?

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In 2012, on the anniversary of No Child Left Behind, I reached out to President George W. Bush asking for an interview to discuss the landmark education law and the politics then surrounding it. His aides thought it was a lousy idea for him to say anything, since it would inject him into an ongoing debate and possibly put him in the position of criticizing his successor. They offered a condition: questions in advance so they could vet them. I said no. Because the interview was going to be for Time, it would have violated the magazine’s policy. Even more, it’s lame. I won’t moderate panels or do interviews where the questions have to be preapproved. I’m not an idealist; it just seems like common sense that if you’re going to put yourself forward as an expert or a leader on an issue, you should at least be able to answer some questions about it that you haven’t seen in advance.

As it turned out, President Bush agreed. One morning my cell phone rang, and he was on the other end, calling from his car and ready to talk about No Child Left Behind and education politics. He had a lot to say and criticized his own party as well as President Obama. It was the only interview he did to mark his signature education law’s 10th birthday.

I thought of this episode the other day listening to accounts of Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s beleaguered education secretary, doing yet another staged event. This time it was an ed tech conference with a friendly interviewer and largely friendly audience. Still, the reviews from her friends and sympathizers were as harsh as the views of her critics.

Since taking office, DeVos has not done much uncontrolled media or public appearances. Sure, she’s met with local media and taken audience questions here and there, but to my knowledge she hasn’t sat down with the kind of media likely to ask challenging or revealing questions or done interviews at events where the questions won’t be softballs and she doesn’t know them ahead of time.

On Friday the Department of Education announced she would skip the annual Education Writers Association conference. She’d get a pass on that if it weren’t part of a pattern.

Her team may think they are protecting her with this approach. They’re not. It’s undermining her credibility and her agency’s role on a critical issue for Americans in a changing world.

DeVos’s supporters are obviously right that she will not get a fair shake in the public debate. Teachers unions and advocacy groups are spending money to stir up trouble wherever she goes. She’s deeply religious, likes school vouchers, and is a billionaire, and her high-profile brother is a controversial former special forces operator. So for much of the press corps, especially the education media, she might as well be a zoo animal. Plus, she works for a toxic and quite possibly dangerous president almost anyone who is paying attention is leery of.

As if that were not enough, her public introduction via her Senate confirmation hearing was so rocky and ill-prepared it left her in an almost bottomless political hole. Now, even when she says sensible things, the fever swamp of the education debate distorts it.

But, so what? That’s the job. No one mentions it much, but both the secretary of the interior and the secretary of defense have more schools under their direct purview than the secretary of education. The Department of Education has some leverage, of course; however, its biggest asset is the bully pulpit and its power to focus attention and energy on various issues and create incentives and conditions for progress. Forfeit that asset and you are forfeiting the game at a time when America can ill afford stagnation at its schools.

I emailed a Department of Education press aide asking about DeVos’s reticence to be unscripted. He quickly responded, disputing the point and saying that DeVos talks to local media and has taken the occasional audience question. When I pressed him, for the record, about whether any terms had been negotiated for several recent appearances that seemed awfully canned, I received no response.

You would think DeVos might want to engage if for no other reason than to confound her critics who for a variety of reasons sincerely believe she’s a talentless heiress. But ego appears outweighed by caution. Either she’s been made gun-shy or it really is true that even asking her about the weather gets you an answer about school vouchers. 

Either way, by not making and engaging in an argument, she’s letting her critics off the hook for having one themselves. Just being anti-DeVos is now an acceptable default position in a field abjectly failing to do its job as much as ours is.

What’s more, she is letting down the people she serves. DeVos is in a public role where we’re talking about people’s children and their opportunities in life. That’s real. There is plenty of room for honest disagreement around various policies and ideas. But if you can’t handle the pressure of tough questions and unscripted engagement about those issues, then you should be in a different line of work, no matter who you are in our sector, most of all if you’re at the top.

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