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Adam Laats, a historian of education and history at Binghamton University, explains why Betsy DeVos was stunningly ignorant and indifferent to the nation’s public schools. She didn’t care about them and considered it to be a waste of time to learn about them. And he adds some lessons from America’s past that illustrate the dark fears that conservatives express about public schools as sinister places where children are indoctrinated to leftist ideology.
The strange career of Betsy DeVos has been only the latest instance of this long legacy of conservative educational activism. Even before she became Trump’s education secretary, she harangued conservative audiences that public schools were nothing but a “dead end.” It wasn’t merely that public schools offered worse academics, DeVos warned. In a speech in late 2020, DeVos articulated some of her guiding beliefs about the dangers of public education. Public schools, DeVos suggested, threatened to yank children from the loving care of their homes and churches and wipe away “every distinctive feature of families.” Instead of sustaining and reinforcing the religious beliefs of conservative Christians, DeVos agreed, public schools would only cram “uniform guidance” down every student’s throat.
By injecting toxic strains of fear and suspicion into every dialogue, DeVos poisoned educational politics from the very top. Her strategy of attacking public education helps explain why she was so successful in keeping her seat in Trump’s Cabinet. President Trump himself harped on the same refrain...
The odd tenure of Betsy DeVos doesn’t make much sense in traditional terms. She was a department leader who despised her department, a spokesperson for public education who didn’t have any idea what to say. In more normal political times, it would have been impossible for her to keep her job. However, in the poisonous atmosphere of Trump’s White House, DeVos fit right in. Like her boss, she did not deal in facts and figures, in policies and plans. Instead, she drew on the long tradition of right-wing fright campaigns.
Why didn’t she bother to learn anything about public education? Because she knew her success lay elsewhere. As conservative activists have done for generations, Betsy DeVos only needed to attack a figment of the conservative imagination. She did not need to know what went on in real schools, because she only needed to resurrect a cartoonish misrepresentation, a bogeyman that had long haunted conservative nightmares.