If I had a vote in the Senate, I would have opposed the nomination of Betsy DeVos for Education secretary. But if I were to rank Trump cabinet secretaries by their level of offensiveness, she would not come close to the top. Yes, she lacks the requisite policy knowledge and had a weird line about bears. But at least education is the issue she knows the most about — unlike, say, cabinet novices Rick Perry or Ben Carson. When you compare DeVos’s shortcomings to, say, Putin crony Rex Tillerson, self-dealer Tom Price, robber baron Steve Mnuchin, vote-suppression aficionado Jeff Sessions, scandal-tinged social Darwinian maniac Andrew Puzder, or fossil-fuel-industry sock puppet Scott Pruitt, she seems positively benign.
Democrats have wildly oversold the damage DeVos could wreak in office. She “would single-handedly decimate our public education system if she were confirmed,” exclaimed Senator Charles Schumer, in an example of the kind of apocalyptic hyperbole Republicans routinely threw around against Barack Obama’s agenda in 2009. DeVos could not decimate the public-education system even if she tried. Her department doesn’t have that kind of power. The federal government contributes less than 9 percent of all spending on education. DeVos has advocated a $20 billion-a-year private-voucher subsidy system, but Republicans are unlikely to finance a costly new scheme like that — they prefer tax cuts — and even if they did, it would still be a drop in the national education bucket. Education is overwhelmingly controlled and financed at the state and local level.
The fear that has gripped many liberals, of an overweening Department of Education laying waste to established public schools across the land, is not a realistic account of how education policy actually plays out. In actuality, education politics tend to cut across party lines. Republicans usually favor local control and oppose reforms that threaten the property-based system favored by affluent suburban parents, who don’t want to risk losing exclusive access to the school district they bought their way into. The last major fight in Congress featured the Obama administration and civil-rights groups against an alliance between Republicans and teachers unions, both of whom opposed an Obama plan to supply new funds for low-income students, because it threatened local control.
It’s important to understand what is actually concerning about DeVos. In addition to lacking policy heft, she is in the grip of simplistic ideas about education and she sees parental choice as a panacea. If parents can choose which school to send their children to, she believes, competition will inevitably force improvement. From the standpoint of center-left education reforms, this is dangerously simplistic. On the whole, based on the conclusions of the most rigorous studies that compare equivalent students, charter schools do a better job than neighborhood-based schools of educating urban students. (As I’ve noted on multiple occasions, my wife works for a public charter school in Washington.) But the performance of charters varies widely across the country. The best public charter systems have strong oversight to regulate and close down ineffective schools. Michigan — the system DeVos helped shape — has extremely weak oversight and ranks among the worst-performing charters in the country. DeVos has favored not only public charter schools but public financing for private schools — which, unlike charters, have no public accountability mechanisms.
This weakness by DeVos has been drowned out by the peculiar quality of attacks from the right and the left, which have taken essentially the same position. Conservatives have mocked pro-reform liberals who oppose DeVos on the grounds that opposing DeVos must mean opposing the concept of charter schools. National Review, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and Breitbart have attacked Cory Booker, an advocate of education reform, for opposing DeVos despite having once spoken at a meeting held by her organization. Jacobin has made essentially the same attack on Booker and other pro-reform liberals from the left. Both the right and the left have a shared interest in defining the liberal pro-reform position out of existence, and treating support for DeVos and support for any kind of education reform as synonymous.
For unions, the campaign against DeVos offered a unique opportunity to organize on favorable terms. The Obama administration support for education reform placed the unions in an awkward spot, in which they were reluctant to make a villain of a president adored by their own members. (Their typical solution was to pretend Obama’s education secretaries, Arne Duncan and John King, had somehow taken control of his education policy against his will.) DeVos relieves them of the dilemma, allowing them to associate policies they oppose with an administration their members also oppose. Even though most liberal reformers — like Democrats for Education Reform — opposed DeVos, critics of reform from the left have sought to associate them with her views and her record.
But the unions did not whip up opposition to DeVos on their own. Her candidacy struck an authentic note of fear in the Democratic grassroots. And while it is a good thing that activists mobilized opposition against a bad nominee, liberals ought to find it disquieting that the brunt of their organizing was brought to bear upon a member of the Trump cabinet who is among those with the least power. DeVos frightened middle-class Democrats because she seemed to pose a threat to their children and their schools (a threat she is unlikely to carry out). Meanwhile, Price will be trying to snatch health insurance away from millions of Americans too poor or sick to buy it, Puzdar will be grinding labor rights into dust, Sessions will be attacking voting rights and protections from police abuse for minorities, and Pruitt will be turning the EPA into a vassal of oil and coal interests.
All these are policy fields where federal law mostly reigns, unlike education, which remains overwhelmingly local in its governance. And all of them put at risk the most vulnerable Americans.
Trump’s critics don’t have to choose which Trump nominees or policies or scandalous behavior to oppose. They can oppose all of it. But mass opposition is a resource that cannot be rallied against every single cause. The resistance to Trump has shown it can muster enormous political energy. But does it know how to allocate it?