Dear Commons Community,
New York Times op-ed columnist Michelle Goldberg has a piece today reviewing Betsy Devos’s interview with Lesley Stahl on CBS’s 60 Minutes last Sunday. Goldberg describes the interview as a “disaster” and analyzes much of DeVos’s comments as indicative of her obliviousness to issues about race especially when it comes to student discipline. Here is an excerpt:
“On Sunday evening, CBS’s “60 Minutes” broadcast an interview that Lesley Stahl conducted with Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s education secretary and one of the richest members of his very rich cabinet. It was overwhelmingly seen as a disaster for DeVos, who struggled to answer very basic questions. She couldn’t say, for example, why schools in Michigan, her home state, have largely gotten worse since the widespread introduction of the school choice policies she lobbied for. When Stahl asked whether, as secretary, she’d ever visited a failing school to find out what went wrong, DeVos said, “I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.”
Like many things in Trump’s administration, this performance was shocking but not surprising. Before becoming secretary of education, DeVos had never worked as an educator or a policymaker; she was a donor to education reform efforts favored by the right, such as school choice and vouchers. Her confirmation hearings last year were an embarrassment. She appeared to be unfamiliar with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, a federal civil rights law. After taking office, she described historically black universities and colleges, founded in response to segregation, as “pioneers when it comes to school choice.”
As this comment suggested, DeVos is, at best, oblivious about race. That obliviousness — or worse — is behind one of the more disturbing moments in her “60 Minutes” interview. In a sick irony, some on the right would use the recent school shooting in Parkland, Fla. — allegedly committed by a young man who carved swastikas into the magazines for his semiautomatic rifle — as a pretext to roll back civil rights protections for students of color. On “60 Minutes,” DeVos, whom Trump has chosen to lead his new school safety commission, appeared to signal she’s on board.”
Goldberg concludes with the implications of Devos’s comments on racial discrimination and school disciplinary policies.
“Speaking to DeVos, Stahl compared situations in which white kids are punished for classroom disruption by a trip to the principal’s office, while for black kids, “they call in the cops.” DeVos refused to say such a discrepancy is wrong: “Arguably, all of these issues or all of this issue comes down to individual kids.” Stahl pressed her on whether this “disproportion in discipline” constitutes “institutional racism.” DeVos said she was committed to “making sure students have opportunity to learn in safe and nurturing environments.”
The comparison Stahl offered was a hypothetical, but it captured the heart of the issue. Black public school students are suspended at 3.8 times the rate of white students. That discrepancy alone doesn’t necessarily demonstrate discrimination, but there’s evidence that students of color are punished differently from white students for the same infractions. Lhamon told me about one elementary school where a black girl was suspended for poking a student with a pencil. When a white girl in the same grade threw a rock that hit another child in the head and broke the teacher’s sunglasses, she was made to help the teacher clean the classroom during lunch.
The DeVos interview has already sent a message that schools can be less mindful of stark disciplinary disparities. Combine this tacit license to discriminate with the Trump administration plan to encourage the arming of teachers, and you have a recipe for something combustible. There’s a lesson here that applies across the administration. Don’t let the clownishness distract you from the bigotry.”
Devos proves again her weak credentials as education secretary. Obliviousness indeed!