Education policy is not a major point of emphasis for Donald Trump personally, but his choice for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, turned out to be perhaps his most controversial nominee. That inaugurates an era in which the normally sleepy Department of Education is going to come under heavy scrutiny, and DeVos as a political neophyte with relatively extreme views and not a ton of White House interest in her issue area just stepped in it again.
After a presidential meeting with the leaders of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, DeVos decided to issue a statement hailing them as an example of her pet issue, school choice:
If you squint at this, you can kind of see what she was trying to say here. DeVos’s view is that traditional public schools are failing many students, and that lightly regulated charter schools or vouchers for parochial schools help kids by providing an outside option.
Black colleges provided an outside option to African Americans excluded from mainstream institutions of higher education by Jim Crow laws. But if you think about this analogy for five seconds, you’ll see that problems abound. And by painting school choice as a form of “separate but equal” education system, DeVos is doing her critics’ work for her.
Beyond the four corners of this gaffe, you see two larger issues at play here.
One is that she doesn’t seem to have any grasp of the higher education aspect of her portfolio. The whole “choice” issue is irrelevant to American higher education policy, and thus irrelevant to federal interactions with Historically Black Colleges and Universities. She wanted to retreat into her intellectual safe space of talking about school choice, and blundered into a land mine.
The other is that the Republican Party only sabotaged itself by confirming weak nominees like DeVos. Her confirmation hearing was a gaffe-tastic disaster, and her tenure in office is shaping up to be much the same. It would not have been difficult to find someone with similar policy views to DeVos but a somewhat deeper understanding of them and some actual experience in a job that involves a heavy public communications element. Republicans count DeVos’s confirmation as a “win.” But your Cabinet is supposed to be a portfolio of assets, and she’s a huge liability.