WASHINGTON, D.C.—It was not a hearing. It was the mere burlesque of a hearing, rendered meaningless by a preposterously accelerated process that rendered all questioning perfunctory and that left all cheap evasions hanging in the air of the committee room the way cigarette smoke used to canopy the proceedings back in the day. You would not hire a gardener through the process by which Betsy DeVos likely is going to become the Secretary of Education. A public school system wouldn’t hire her to work the cafeteria line at lunch. It was appalling. It was unnerving. It was a grotesque of how an evolved democracy should operate. It was business as usual these days and it likely isn’t going to matter a damn.
As nearly as I can tell, the nominees for the president-elect’s Cabinet fall into several different categories. There are the people you’d pretty much expect from any Republican administration. (James Mattis, Stephen Flynn, Ryan Zinke). There are the people who understand the mission of their departments and have spent their lives undermining it. (Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Rick Perry at Energy, Andrew Puzder at Labor). And there are the people who are fundamentally clueless about the general nature of public service. (Rex Tillerson at State.) On Tuesday night, DeVos demonstrated that she is that rarest of Trump administration fauna: Someone who fits capably into all three categories.
She and her family and the Amway gozillions they control have been a bottomless reservoir for the dark money that is the engine behind a dozen different conservative fetish objects, from right-to-work laws, to gutting campaign finance regulations, to injecting splinter Protestantism into every part of the political commons. So she’s pretty much what you’d expect from any Republican administration. She understands the mission of the Department of Education and truly dislikes it. And, as was graphically demonstrated even in the truncated questioning Tuesday night, she doesn’t know enough about education policy to feed to your guppies.
This was most clearly demonstrated during an exchange with Senator Al Franken. Franken asked her about the distinction in education between proficiency and growth. Then, this happened.
Franken: This brings me to the issue of proficiency, which the senator cited, versus growth. I would like your views on the relative advantage of assessments and using them to measure proficiency or growth.
DeVos: I think if i am understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would correlate it to competency and mastery, so each student is measured according to the advancements they are making in each subject area.
Franken: That’s growth. That’s not proficiency. In other words, the growth they are making is not growth. Proficiency is an arbitrary standard.
Devos: Proficiency is if they have reached a third grade level for reading, etc.
(Ed. Note: At this point, the nominee was further at sea than Magellan ever was. We continue.)
Franken: I’m talking about the debate between proficiency in growth, what your thoughts on that?
DeVos: I was just asking the senator to clarify…
Franken: This is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years. I have advocated growth as the chairman, and every member of this committee knows, because with proficiency teachers ignore the kids of the top who are not going to fall below proficiency, and they ignore the kid at the bottom who they know will never get to proficiency. I have been an advocate for growth. But it surprises me that you don’t know this issue, and Mr. Chairman, I think this is a good reason for us to have more questions. This is a very important subject — education, our kids’ education. I think we are selling our kids short by not being able to have a debate on it.
As I may have mentioned, my father was a teacher and an administrator in the public high schools for over 35 years. He explained the essential difference between proficiency and growth to me 40 years ago. That a prospective Secretary of Education hadn’t the faintest idea what Franken was talking about should have been enough to make the committee adjourn itself in helpless laughter.But there were even more risible moments to come. DeVos clumsily dodged every question about her family’s financing of the dingier segments of the conservative movement. Rookie senator Maggie Hassan from New Hampshire doggedly pursued a $5 million donation made by a foundation ostensibly run by DeVos’ mother to Focus on the Family, the anti-gay extremist chop-shop that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a hate group.