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Betsy DeVos can’t answer basic questions on sexual assault, school choice in rough 60 Minutes interview

The controversial education secretary thinks she is “more misunderstood than anything.”

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Speaks To Media After Visiting Students At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Betsy DeVos’s media tour is not going well.

The secretary of education — arguably the most controversial member of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet — on Sunday evening sat down for an interview with 60 Minutes, during which she struggled to answer basic questions about the condition of her home state’s public schools, why she is considering rolling back Obama-era guidelines to prevent discriminatory discipline, and whether the number of false accusations of sexual assault on campus is lower than the number of actual rapes or assaults.

And on Monday, she appeared on Today, where she repeatedly said “everything is on the table” when asked why the Trump administration had backed off from the president’s earlier calls to raise the age limit to buy some guns to 21. On the White House’s proposal to arm some teachers, she failed to specify what proportion of teachers she believes would need to have guns to be effective.

Last January, DeVos struggled with some basic questions in her Senate confirmation hearing, and she has kept a relatively low media profile ever since. Now she’s giving more interviews as the Trump administration rolls out its new school safety plan — and she’s still hesitant to give specific answers.

60 Minutes pressed DeVos on school choice and sexual assault

On Sunday’s 60 Minutes, Lesley Stahl asked DeVos whether she believes there are as many false accusations as there are actual rapes and assaults on college campuses. The Education Department announced in September that it would rescind the Obama administration’s 2011 guidelines about sexual assault on campus, directing colleges to give more benefit of the doubt to the accused.

“Well, one sexual assault is one too many, and one falsely accused individual is one too many,” DeVos replied. When Stahl pressed her on whether they’re the same, DeVos said she wasn’t sure. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” she said. “But I’m committed to a process that’s fair for everyone involved.”

DeVos gave a similar answer when asked about her department’s consideration of rolling back another Obama-era rule aimed at preventing discriminatory discipline ­— in other words, guidelines that make sure schools don’t punish students of color more than their white classmates. Conservatives argue that the rule ties teachers’ hands on discipline, making it more difficult for students to learn.

DeVos didn’t get into specifics when pressed, though. “We are studying that rule,” she said. “We need to ensure that all students have an opportunity to learn in a safe and nurturing environment. And all students means all students.” When pressed by Stahl about institutional racism and for more specifics on why she thinks the rule needs to be rolled back, DeVos twice repeated the “opportunity to learn” line.

The weakest part of DeVos’s 60 Minutes interview was a roughly minute-and-a-half segment about her support for school choice and its impacts. DeVos is a longtime school choice advocate who once said that traditional public education is a “dead end” and on Sunday said her proudest accomplishment as education secretary thus far has been rolling back the “overreach of the federal government in education.”

“We have invested billions and billions and billions of dollars from the federal level, and we have seen zero results,” she said.

When Stahl pointed out that test scores have gone up over the past 25 years, DeVos said the US is still “middle of the pack” at best. When asked what could be done about it, she said it is about “empowering parents to make the choices from their kids” — as in, move them to other schools. But when a child goes to another school, the money goes with them, leaving the public school they were attending — and the students still there — with less funding.

Stahl pointed out that’s happened in Michigan, where the entire state’s school system is struggling. “Well, there are certainly pockets where … students are doing well,” DeVos said. She conceded that Michigan schools “need to do better” but also that she hasn’t gone to visit the bad ones to see what’s going on. “I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming,” she said.

DeVos is going to head a new commission on preventing school violence — and her comments thus far aren’t exactly calming

The White House has tapped DeVos to head a task force on school violence prevention following the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in February that left 17 people dead. “We are committed to working quickly because there’s no time to waste,” DeVos said on a conference call with reporters on Sunday. “No student, no family, no teacher and no school should have to live the horror of Parkland or Sandy Hook or Columbine again.”

Among the proposals being considered by the White House and the task force is one to arm some teachers and school employees. Today’s Savannah Guthrie on Monday asked DeVos for specifics on the idea, and she repeatedly hedged on giving definitive answers. She said she doesn’t have a “percentage” in mind for how many teachers would need to be armed to be effective but doesn’t believe teachers in every classroom or every grade should have guns.

“The point is that schools should have this tool if they choose to use the tool,” she said. “Communities should have the tools, states should have the tool, but nobody should be mandated to do it.”

She did say she doesn’t think school personnel should have assault weapons, but it’s an issue that is “best decided at the local level,” leaving the door open ever so slightly.

DeVos on Sunday said she wasn’t sure why many Americans dislike her so much, musing that she is “more misunderstood than anything.” Her recent press tour isn’t helping.