When then-UNC Board of Governors chairman John Fennebresque explained the firing of UNC President Tom Ross, he said, “We want a change agent, but we don’t know the specifics of what we want to change.”
The person chosen to figure out what specifically to change was Margaret Spellings, education secretary under President George W. Bush. Owing to the highly politicized nature of the change in leadership, and to Spellings’s controversial record, my friends and I were stunned, as were legions of UNC supporters. But it was clear that we had to drink the Kool-Aid, so we decided the only chance for survival was to give her a chance.
But after Spellings’s tacit endorsement on “CBS This Morning” of President Trump’s nominee, Betsy DeVos, for education secretary, we had no choice but to call in the generous credit line we had offered. DeVos is the most ill-equipped of any of Trump’s nominees. She has never worked in, attended, or sent her children to public schools. Her focus has been on alternatives to public education.
She has supported anti-LGBTQ agendas. She has donated more than $200 million to GOP causes. Nothing wrong with donating to that which you believe in, but the question of quid pro quo is problematic.
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Even some Republicans are jumping ship. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins said they would vote against DeVos, based on her uninformed and often embarrassing comments during her confirmation hearing. Hearing Committee chairman Lamar Alexander forced a vote despite a request for a delay in order to ask more questions. He argued that DeVos is already “the most questioned education secretary in the history of the Senate.”
Why shouldn’t she be questioned at length and with intensity and candor? We are talking about the future of education, and education is our best hope for the future.
I will not witness in my lifetime any appreciable progress in our ability to understand and negotiate with those holding differing views. But a supreme beauty of our democracy is the promise of the notion that intelligent minds can differ, and we can try to teach that to our children more persuasively. I am confident that Spellings shares this hope. But at the same time I am puzzled and vexed at her support of DeVos.
When Sen. Tim Kaine asked DeVos for her opinion about the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, she answered, “I think that’s a matter that’s best left to the states.”
An important 1975 civil rights law requires states and schools to provide services to those with disabilities. Upon further questioning by Collins, DeVos replied, “Maybe the money should follow individual students instead of going directly to the states.” Perhaps DeVos and Spellings can devise a plan whereby we identify those individual students and send them our tax dollars with the stern instruction that they are not to buy hula hoops or Gummy Bears.
In Eudora Welty’s story “Petrified Man,” the exasperated character Billy Boy flings a question at another character, Leota, “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” I am tempted to turn that around and ask of DeVos, “If you’re so rich, why ain’t you smart?”
But the logic in both instances is flawed. I joke, partly to maintain sanity, but I have a personal investment in this particular vector that goes beyond public policy, DeVos, Spellings, and my political leanings.
I have a granddaughter who is in the autism spectrum. She is smart as a whip (Princess of Math in her third grade!), beautiful as a child and now more beautiful at 14, equestrienne extraordinaire, and dealing with the hand she was dealt with a bravery I wish I had. She does not need the services of the state, but because of my concern for her and those with similar disabilities, my heart goes out – and I do not want to hear a possible education secretary talking in vacuous and uninformed terms about education.
To her credit, DeVos gave $22.5 million of her Amway billions to the Kennedy Center to establish the DeVos Institute of Arts Management. It would be churlish to question motives, but billionaires do get their names on plaques on marble walls, and they get a leg up on political nominations.
Speaking of marble walls, architects and builders have a term “level, plumb, and square.” Meaning: true. My wish for the New Year is that we have people representing us in government and education who honor that same principle. Level, plumb, and square. True.
James Seay of Chapel Hill is a professor emeritus of English at UNC-CH. He has published poems and essays in Esquire, The Nation, Oxford American, and most recently Harper’s.