mixed feelings on the DeVos nomination battle

I opposed Betsy DeVos’s nomination, I’m grateful to the people who protested it, and I’m sorry she won confirmation. But I’m not sure it’s a good sign that she attracted more effective opposition than the other nominees have. (That is, unless the grassroots opposition to Jeff Sessions has been relatively underreported.) The purpose of this post is not to check the momentum of the anti-DeVos efforts but to ponder today’s ideological spectrum and how we should identify and counter the worst threats to democracy.

Why did DeVos get more effective criticism than the other nominees? It can’t be because she poses a graver danger. The Every Child Succeeds Act of 2015, which had bipartisan support, determines federal k-12 education policy. Congress won’t reopen that legislative compromise. Moreover, education is predominantly a state responsibility, and the 2015 Act gave the states more discretion. The Higher Education Act is due for renewal, but I doubt Congress will muster a majority for a major change. DeVos will have to operate within the parameters of two demanding statutes. In contrast, the cabinet secretaries in charge of foreign policy, justice, financial regulation, and environmental issues have much more freedom of action.

Nor do DeVos’ radical views explain why she attracted more effective opposition than Trump’s other nominees. She is a very strong proponent of school choice, to such an extent that some mainstream proponents consider her support a liability. But the idea of introducing market mechanisms into education has been dominant for 25 years, and both the Clinton and Obama administrations endorsed versions of that theory. Democratic Sen. Cory Booker has worked with DeVos on school choice initiatives. To be sure, she acknowledges that she favors school choice so that religious schools can expand, whereas some other pro-market reformers just expect better performance to result from competition. But that difference of motivation may not make much difference for actual policy.

It’s true that DeVos performed poorly in her hearings, but was she really less qualified than Rick Perry or Ben Carson? If the Senate has been assessing competence and qualifications, then you’d have to consider sexism to explain why Senators seem to prefer those two men to DeVos. After all, DeVos has worked on education issues, albeit narrowly defined.

It’s not hard to find other explanations for DeVos’ harder path to confirmation. More people care about education than about other issues. Vouchers are unpopular or irrelevant in suburban and rural communities. Also, there is just one cabinet secretary for education, so she attracted all the attention, whereas the nominees concerned with other topics split up the opposition. Here, for example, is a rally against the environmental nominees, but it targets three of them, it’s not very big compared to the anti-DeVos events, and it’s in Democratic controlled Newark, NJ.

Above all, the teachers unions are organized nationally and still have the capacity to prompt grassroots action.

I’m all for that, since I think democracy requires organization. But is it good that mobilization has been most effective against DeVos? We’re used to a linear ideological spectrum, with pro-market/anti-state views on the right and New Deal/Great Society government activism on the left. In that framework, DeVos stands far to the right. Trump is also some kind of right-wing radical. Therefore, DeVos must be like Trump, and blocking her would mean blocking Trumpism. Unions are organized for that purpose, since they exist to counter market rule.

I think this framework is obsolete. We should array political leaders on two continua, from pro- to anti-state and from liberal to authoritarian on social issues. Donald Trump does not stand to the right on the spectrum from pro- to anti-state. He is all for using the massive power of the federal government. He just wants to use it for an ethnonationalist, reactionary program.

This is the taxonomy I have in mind for the issue of education:

I code Ted Kennedy as pro-state and socially-liberal, although he was a major architect of No Child Left Behind, which introduced market mechanisms. I still think he was more pro- than anti-state, because NCLB also dramatically increased federal spending on education and introduced some new command-and-control regulations. I code Cory Booker as socially liberal and pro-market on education, because he (and not he alone among Democrats) has strongly advocated school choice. I put DeVos just a touch to Booker’s right on the pro/anti-state axis, but also well to his south on the authoritarian scale, because she clearly wants to use education policy to change the whole culture in conservative directions. Still, she chooses to do that by reducing the power of the state, not by expanding it, which makes her not very authoritarian. Finally, Donald Trump stands down there in the bottom-left quadrant, eager to use the state to enforce reactionary norms.

I’m left-of-center on this diagram, but I’m willing to have an ongoing debate with market advocates in which the size of government rises and falls and voters make judgments based on results. It’s the bottom-left that frightens me.

If pro-state authoritarianism is the greatest threat to democracy today, then we must rally all its opponents. They will include pro-government liberals who detest the content of Trump’s policies along with anti-government libertarians who fear the expansion of the state. I would not advocate trying to enlist Betsy DeVos herself in the movement against Trump, although she did oppose him explicitly on ideological grounds in March, saying, “I don’t think Donald Trump represents the Republican Party. I continue to be very optimistic that as we get further along into the process, the more voters know about him, and the more informed they are, the more they’re going to continue to break away.” But even if you don’t want to share a movement with DeVos herself, we need people from her general camp.

As Jon Valant writes, Donald Trump is driving Democrats away from school choice. They used to be divided on that issue, and some, like Sen. Booker, saw choice as means to improve poor systems. Now Trump has endorsed school choice on the stump and has chosen a market zealot for his education secretary, and Democrats are rightly against Trump. Therefore, Democrats are turning against school choice. Valant says, “Trump and DeVos, divisive figures enormously unpopular among Democrats, could become the public faces of charter schools and school choice.”

If you oppose market mechanisms in education (and I’m moderately skeptical of them), then this is a Good Thing. It disrupts the bipartisan support for school choice and turns it into yet another policy proposal that will require single-party control to enact. Down go the odds that we will expand school choice. But if you’re hoping for a leftist plus liberal plus libertarian coalition against Trump, then the shift against school choice could make things harder.

None of that implies that DeVos will be a good Secretary of Education or that it was a mistake to oppose her. I just think we need a coalition against authoritarianism that is equally effective against the true Trumpists and that makes common cause with libertarians until the present danger passes.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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