These are difficult times for fence-sitters and for those who take a stand. For example, the leaders of IBM and Tesla are taking a lot of flak because they continue to serve on President Trump’s Economic Advisory Council. Why serve? Because, as one said, it’s better to be on the inside where he might be able to be a voice of moderation. And poor Uber: its founder didn’t resign quickly enough for some former Uber fans, who are now using Lyft or Juno instead, while others Uber users are boycotting precisely because he did jump ship.
Anheuser-Busch is being both praised and pilloried for a Super Bowl commercial that celebrated the immigration stories of its two founders. It’s widely reported that many businesses have set up ‘war rooms’ to work out how to deal with an unpredictable President.
What about education, where the controversial Betsy DeVos is now serving as Secretary after a grueling confirmation process that required a tie-breaking vote by the Vice President, a first in our nation’s history? Even with questioning severely limited by Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R, TE), the hearing revealed how little she understands public education, while her own track record in Michigan demonstrates her commitment to vouchers, for-profit and virtual charter schools, and minimal accountability.
However, she is our Secretary of Education. As such, should progressives offer to work for her and with her, to help her understand the historic purposes and accomplishments of public schools? She’s a smart woman, and perhaps she’d appreciate assistance from people whose sense of history and familiarity with Washington could help improve all public education.
Last week a college friend (with whom I have never discussed politics) wrote and urged me to offer my services to Secretary DeVos. He had read my recent blog, the one in which I said that she was ‘stunningly unqualified’ to serve, and he used that as his jumping off point.
Here’s part of what he wrote: I have been thinking that you might be one of those best positioned to help her. We all (including Mrs. DeVos) are aware of the criticisms that have been leveled against her about lacking experience in public education. There’s little to debate here; facts are facts. However, I don’t recall even her harshest critics accusing her of being dumb or not wanting to do the best job possible as secretary of education.
What do you bring to the table that she could benefit from? The knowledge you have gained from approximately 50 years of experience – everything from teaching in a public school classroom to interviewing top educators and teachers’ union leaders to analyzing the positives and negatives in U.S. education and commenting on your conclusions. You (and knowledgeable people like you who can be both critical and fair) are exactly who Mrs. DeVos needs to help her do her job.
When I responded skeptically, he wrote back, saying in part: Abraham Lincoln, arguably our nation’s greatest president, purposely sought advice from those who had previously vehemently disagreed with him.(Don’t get me wrong; I’m not equating Betsy DeVos to Abraham Lincoln. My point is that former adversaries can provide valuable advice and guidance.) I don’t buy that, by working with DeVos to improve the quality of education in our country so that more students are better prepared to handle their futures, you would become a hypocrite, become a sellout, or “lose credibility.” Far from it, you would gain credibility by turning criticism into positive action.
My friend’s argument, at base, is that Betsy DeVos is America’s Secretary of Education, and that, as Americans, we ought to be working in whatever ways we can to improve public education. If Secretary DeVos hears only from privatizers, what chance does progressive education have? I and others like me might be able to get a seat at the table, where we could argue for fewer tests, more social and emotional learning, more project-based learning, and so on.
So here’s the question: Am I selling my friend short by dismissing the notion of volunteering to be of whatever assistance I could? Should we be making calls, sending resumés, offering our services, and knocking on doors in Washington in order to get close to Secretary DeVos?
Just by chance, I had lunch recently with a veteran Democrat, someone who’d been high up in Secretary Riley’s Education Department during the eight years of the Clinton Administration and who had been an off-and-0n, informal advisor to Secretary Arne Duncan during the Obama Administration. I asked about serving in the Trump Administration, working for Betsy DeVos. The response was immediate…and surprising.
“I’d do it,” my friend said, “But only if the position was important enough to guarantee having the Secretary’s attention, and only if it paid well. Position and power are what matter.”
What about volunteering, which is what my college friend had urged me to do?
“Not on your life!” My friend went on: Volunteers are usually window-dressing. No power and influence, and their names are likely to be used to justify, or to create the appearance of support for, policies that progressives might find anathema. There’s no upside to volunteering to help an Administration whose ideas are fundamentally opposed to yours, my friend said.
So I am not offering my services to Secretary DeVos, and I don’t think any progressives should. If she asks for your help, think long and hard before agreeing.
But then, what is the best way for us to improve public education, if it’s not by advising the Secretary? I think the role of educational progressives is to watch carefully and to speak up loud and clear when (if) the Secretary proposes actions that go against basic principles.
It’s also the duty of progressives to be for certain principles and policies: financial transparency in all dealings, especially charter schools; accountability for all schools (which Ms DeVos declined to support in response to Senator Murphy’s (D, CT) questioning; civil rights protections, and enforcement of IDEA, Title IX and other federal laws.
My own commitment is two-fold: to educational opportunities for all our children, and to public education as the essential glue of our democracy.