Lightning Round

Betsy DeVos Fight Demonstrates Donald Trump’s Serious About Changing Washington

At its heart, her nomination is about a changing America, and a proxy war coming to a head in the U.S. Senate.


Tom Williams/Getty

It’s hard to grill something in just five minutes. But that didn’t stop Democrats from trying.

Sen. Lamar Alexander’s (R-TN) decision as chairman of the Senate education committee to limit senators to one five-minute round of questioning of Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s secretary of Education pick, was perhaps the most controversial (and consequential) thing to come out of Tuesday evening’s hearing.

There were protestations from several Democrats―perhaps most vociferously, from Sens. Al Franken (D-MN) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)—who wanted a second round of questioning. There were a few fiery moments and at least one mildly funny one: “There’s nothing in life that’s truly free,” DeVos curtly schooled Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), when he mentioned tuition-free college.

Sure, there were pointed questions about her past partisan politics (she formerly chaired the Michigan GOP), her political donations (possibly, she conceded, adding up to as much as $200 million to Republican candidates), her status as billionaire, her being spuriously accused of having an anti-gay past, her missing ethics paperwork, and her advocating the use of America’s schools to advance “God’s kingdom" And there’s the fact that she has never worked inside the education establishment.

It’s hard to knock out a nominee in just one round. This objective is made even harder when Republicans also get to ask questions that generally portray the nominee as a bold reformer.

Still, the important thing to know about the nomination of Betsy DeVos is that it’s not largely about Betsy DeVos.

At its heart, this nomination is about something much larger than Betsy DeVos. This is “a proxy war. And it just happens to be coming to a head in the U.S. Senate,” according to Andy Smarick, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

He’s right. This is a story about a changing America. And, in a sense, what could happen to public schools and teachers’ unions might ironically parallel the plight of the coal miners and factory workers who voted for Donald Trump.

Every other sector in our economy is moving away from old business models and trending toward more personalization, service, and flexibility. People who pick up an iPhone, summon an Uber, and order concert tickets on StubHub don’t understand why they can’t choose from a menu of school options—be it public, private, magnet, or charter schools.

Yes, this is a lagging indicator. Not everyone is as technologically savvy (or dependent) as cosmopolitan elites. But as technology has become ubiquitous, we have been trained to expect more choices—more options.

Eventually, this trend toward individualism and choices was bound to collide with the traditional district public education system—and the powerful teachers’ unions that fund the Democratic Party. It happened Thursday night during DeVos’ confirmation hearing for Secretary of Education.

And just like the steel worker in Pennsylvania, some people get left behind in a changing economy. Administrators who are deeply entrenched in old schools are going to have to change. And change can be painful. And the nomination of Betsy DeVos expedites this decades-long process.

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Yes, in some ways Donald Trump wants to make America great again by hearkening back to a bygone era. But Donald Trump is a disruptive change-maker.

Here’s the thing to know about Donald Trump’s cabinet and staff picks: They are about action and getting things done. Tapping Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) for Health and Human Services demonstrated Trump’s commitment to repealing and replacing Obamacare. With Gen. Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor, it was about Trump’s commitment to destroying the so­called Islamic State and radical Islamism. With Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, it’s hard not to see that Trump is sending a message about law and order.

These probably aren’t the kind of nominees you would put up if you were looking for someone to safely and competently manage a large bureaucracy without making too many waves. These are picks intended to upset the apple cart. Trump doesn’t want to manage the status quo; he wants to shift the paradigm. Six of Trump’s domestic policy cabinet members have no governmental experience at all.

Betsy DeVos might be the most controversial of the group. And the truth is that Trump’s emphasis on vision over (governmental) experience might come at a cost. The Department of Education is a complicated bureaucracy, and there are different dimensions to consider. A revolutionary leader will have to balance pushing school choice with making the trains run on time. Where do people go when they have a problem with their student loans? I don’t know. Does Betsy?

Leaders have different skill sets. This is a reformist nomination, but the Department of Education is largely a managerial agency. “The operational responsibilities are enormous,” says Andy Rotherham, co-founder and partner of Bellwether Education Partners (a group I have spoken for in the past), “and it seems as though the Trump administration is viewing it as more of a bully pulpit agency.”

Just as Donald Trump tapped a competent governor in Mike Pence to be his second in command, to be effective in this role, DeVos will likely need a strong number two. (She should consider someone like Hanna Skandera, who leads New Mexico’s department of education, to manage the day-to-day operational aspects, freeing up DeVos to pursue her larger mission of empowering families and making sure kids aren’t assigned to persistently failing schools.)

But make no mistake—DeVos is on a mission. “She has purpose. And her purpose is to help those who weren’t born in the great lottery of life,” said Phillip Stutts, CEO of Go BIG Media, who has worked for DeVos’ educational reform group since 2005. “She puts her money where her mouth is. And it’s not just money. It’s the purpose of her life.”

With this nomination, Trump has made it very clear where he stands on this fight. It was the opening salvo to what may end up being one of the most bitterly contested nomination battles of the Trump presidency.