For many, the confirmation hearing of Betsy DeVos oscillated between moments of horror and dismal comedy. Whether it was her inability to clarify conflicts of interest or her assertion that guns in schools would keep students safe from grizzly bear attacks, it became painfully obvious why her nomination was opposed by senators on both sides of the aisle.
However, now that she is confirmed, I question whether she was worthy of being characterized as ‘Trump’s most controversial nominee.’
Thus far, the Trump administration has been adept at the art of distraction. They overshadow their most controversial moves by simultaneously promoting policies far more attention-grabbing. In television, they call this ‘counterprogramming’— airing one thing to distract from something more negative.
One such example is Trump’s unconventional reveal of his Supreme Court Justice pick, Neil Gorsuch. He made the announcement on live, primetime TV, with all the pomp and circumstance of a reality TV star. This spectacle served to steal precious airtime away from the more controversial Executive Order that banned people from six Muslim-majority nations from entering the country.
On other occasions, Trump distracted from the Trump University settlement by engaging in a twitter war with the musical Hamilton, and continues to claim mass voter fraud to distract from the fact Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by an astounding three million votes.
Enter Betsy DeVos.
The billionaire heiress to the Amway fortune has a history of supporting for-profit educational institutions and a voucher system that would allow public funds to be redirected towards private schools under the guise of giving students more choice. But how much real power will she actually have?
Currently, most educational power falls under the state and school board jurisdiction. The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act replaced the No Child Left Behind policies of the Bush era with a system that allows states more freedom to decide how to measure student progress. This means less testing for students and more flexibility for administrations to improve their schools with varied methods.
While this could be repealed under the Trump administration, the Education Secretary currently has little legal authority over the states’ decisions on how to measure student progress. This, in addition to other laws restricting federal involvement, is a comforting fact for those hopeful their child’s education will survive Betsy DeVos.
Now, think of her relative power to that of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Here, the art of distraction arises. While DeVos appears clueless to the functioning of her department, this may turn out to be not as damaging to the well-being of citizens as the appointments of Tillerson and Sessions.
Despite the Education Secretary’s relative unimportance compared to other cabinet positions, DeVos’ nomination was so contested that, as stated by the office of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, an average of 1.5 million phone calls flooded the Senate each day, with the majority of these voicing concern about DeVos.
While their grievances should not be dismissed, perhaps the national outcry would have been more effective if it had instead, focused on the nomination of former Senator Jeff Sessions. Sessions was one of the first senators to publicly back Trump, causing many to worry his loyalty will make him turn a blind eye to the growing legal infringements of the administration. No doubt the Department of Justice will have to arbitrate between citizens and Trump and the ever-growing concerns regarding conflicts of interest or executive orders like the ‘Muslim Ban,’ which was recently deemed unconstitutional in a decision from three federal court judges.
In addition to whether or not he will hold Trump to the law, let’s remember that Sessions also has a spotty civil rights record which was instrumental in denying him a federal judgeship in 1986. This was largely due to the accusation that he was guilty of racially selective prosecution during his time as an Attorney of the Southern Court of Alabama.
So, were we too distracted by DeVos’ grizzly bear attacks to mount a formidable outcry against Sessions in defense of civil rights? Were we duped once again by an administration that frequently uses distraction to gloss over their controversies?
I, for one, hope this is the case.
A lame-duck Education Secretary might be the gift we need to re-focus our scrutiny on areas where this new administration could do serious damage, like civil rights and international security.
American students will probably not forget how to read in the next four years, but do not misread this opinion as a vote for DeVos. The best we can hope for is that she maintains her deer-in-the-headlights gaze and leaves us with the status quo. Hardly a comforting thought, but at least that will leave us more time to turn our efforts to Trump’s other picks to make sure they are held accountable.