So how did Betsy DeVos end up being the wicked witch of the Calvinist Midwest?
That's one way of stating the main topic of this past week's "Crossroads" podcast, which was recorded a day later than normal for technical reasons. Click here to tune that in, please.
In addition to talking about the hammer and tongs warfare over the DeVos nomination to serve as secretary of education, host Todd Wilken and I also talked about the fact that the whole subject of alternative forms of education in America -- think charter schools, homeschooling, etc. -- is not something that breaks down into easy left vs. right categories, when it comes to politics and religion. Click here to see my earlier post on that.
But the key to the DeVos war was that there was really nothing unusual about it, for reasons that Ross Douthat explained in a column for The New York Times. The bottom line was the bottom line: It is hard to name a culture wars army that provides more muscle and campaign funding to the modern Democratic Party than the public educational elites and the unions that serve them. We are talking about millions and millions of dollars, year after year after year.
Here is Douthat, who as always is guilty of linear, logical thinking:
... Somehow it was DeVos who became, in the parlance of cable-news crawls, Trump’s “most controversial nominee.” Never mind that Trump’s logorrheic nationalism barely has time for education. Never mind that local control of schools makes the Education Department a pretty weak player. Never mind that Republican views on education policy are much closer to the expert consensus than they are on, say, climate change. Never mind that the bulk of DeVos’s school-choice work places her only somewhat to the right of the Obama administration’s pro-charter-school positioning, close to centrist Democrats like Senator Cory Booker. None of that mattered: Against her and (so far) only her, Democrats went to the barricades, and even dragged a couple of wavering Republicans along with them.
DeVos did look unprepared and even foolish at times during her confirmation hearings, and she lacks the usual government experience. But officially the opposition claimed to be all about hardheaded policy empiricism. A limited and heavily regulated charter school program is one thing, the argument went, but DeVos’s zeal for free markets would gut public education and turn kids over to the not-so-tender mercies of unqualified bottom-liners.
DeVos is the living symbol of everything the educational establishment hates, a woman with zero personal ties to public schools and years of experience in fighting for alternatives -- especially for the poor and those caught in substandard urban school zones. As I noted in the podcast, of course Democrats went to the mattresses to stop her from becoming secretary of education. Her nomination was something like proposing Elton John as the next leader of Focus on the Family.
But as Douthat noted. there was more to this than campaign donations. Hang on, this is where religion comes into the equation:
So why did the Democrats fight so hard? Because in this particular case, the rules of normal pre-Trump politics still apply.
... Even in the age of surging blue-collar populism, upper-middle-class suburbanites haven’t lost their influence, and they generally like their public schools and regard school choice as a threat rather than a promise. Charters and vouchers are most appealing to the poor, the religious and the eccentric -- to low-income families locked into failing schools and religious conservatives and bohemians with ideological doubts about the content of the public-school curriculum. That’s a motley, divided constituency, whereas well-off suburbanites are easier to activate and rally. It’s the same dynamic that made it easy to defeat a modest expansion of charter schools in Massachusetts last November: Not only teachers-union-loving Democrats but also lots of Republican-leaning suburbanites, having bought (literally) into the existing system, tend to sympathize with liberal warnings that too much choice could leave their own kids worse off.
Finally, even after Trumpism’s disruptions, the older culture-war bogeymen still get liberals excited. Sure, they’re officially more worried about white nationalism and the fate of NATO, but wave the cape of looming theocracy, and suddenly it’s 2004 all over again. After all, did you hear that DeVos is some sort of Calvinist? That she’s actually linked her policy views to her Christian piety? That her support for school choice could conceivably enable more evangelical and Catholic parents to send their kids to conservative religious schools?
Read it all.
After we recorded, I suddenly remembered one other reason why it was logical for public-school elites to fight to the death at this moment.
To be blunt: They are not feeling strong and empowered right now, on other fronts. Take, for example that amazing, take-no-prisoners Washington Post headline that ran the other day, the one that (honest, I am not making this up) proclaimed:
Obama administration spent billions to fix failing schools, and it didn’t work
Can you imagine how overwhelming the evidence had to be to produce that headline, and this overture?
One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis.
Test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received money through the School Improvement Grants program -- the largest federal investment ever targeted to failing schools -- than in schools that did not.
The Education Department published the findings on the website of its research division ... hours before President Obama’s political appointees walked out the door.
“We’re talking about millions of kids who are assigned to these failing schools, and we just spent several billion dollars promising them things were going to get better,” said Andy Smarick, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has long been skeptical that the Obama administration’s strategy would work. “Think of what all that money could have been spent on instead.”
Do you think that the people DeVos will pull into her inner circle know those numbers? And more?
Hang on, this battle is just getting started and, well, it's predestined to be a really messy fight.