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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s controversial 60 Minutes interview, explained

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s controversial 60 Minutes interview, explained
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The fallout from Betsy DeVos’s disastrous media tour continues — and the secretary of education and her staff are making it worse.

To recap: DeVos sat down with Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes for an interview that aired Sunday, in which the Cabinet member struggled to answer basic questions, including about the performance of schools in her home state of Michigan and why she rolled back an Obama-era policy on campus sexual assault.

DeVos and her team have tried to do damage control since the 60 Minutes interview aired, embarking on a Twitter blitz that implied the news program selectively omitted information to diminish DeVos. At least part of that campaign backfired.

When DeVos was confirmed as education secretary, she made headlines for struggling with basic questions about public education. The 60 Minutes interview and some of DeVos’s other recent public appearances raise questions about how much she’s really learned on the job.

The firestorm over the 60 Minutes interview

DeVos’s 13-minute 60 Minutes appearance included a few rough spots. She floundered in the face of questions about school choice and campus sexual assault — issues that, a year into the job, she should be well-versed in.

The exchange (above) about school choice with Stahl stood out. This is DeVos’s pet issue and a cause to which she’s directed her personal wealth. The conversation began with DeVos recounting her greatest accomplishment, which she considers to be scaling back the “overreach of the federal government in education.”

As Vox’s Emily Stewart broke it down:

When Stahl pointed out that test scores have gone up over the past 25 years, DeVos said the US is still “middle of the pack” at best. When asked what could be done about it, she said it is about “empowering parents to make the choices from their kids” — as in, move them to other schools. But when a child goes to another school, the money goes with them, leaving the public school they were attending — and the students still there — with less funding.

Stahl followed up with a pointed question about the performance of schools in Michigan:

Lesley Stahl: Now, has that happened in Michigan? We’re in Michigan. This is your home state.

Betsy DeVos: Michi–Yes, well, there’s lots of great options and choices for students here.

Lesley Stahl: Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?

Betsy DeVos: I don’t know. Overall, I– I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.

Lesley Stahl: The whole state is not doing well.

Betsy DeVos: Well, there are certainly lots of pockets where this– the students are doing well and–

Lesley Stahl: No, but your argument that if you take funds away that the schools will get better, is not working in Michigan where you had a huge impact and influence over the direction of the school system here.

Betsy DeVos: I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them.

Lesley Stahl: The public schools here are doing worse than they did.

Betsy DeVos: Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it.

Stahl then asked if DeVos had identified the specific reasons Michigan schools underperformed. DeVos responded that she had not. “I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming,” she said.

Lesley Stahl: Maybe you should.

Betsy DeVos: Maybe I should. Yes.

The exchange echoed the worst fears of DeVos’s critics: that as a longtime school-choice advocate she is unable, or unwilling, to examine the program critically and consider its potential shortfalls. It also reinforced the perception that DeVos harbors disdain for public schools.

DeVos also bungled a response on her stance on some Obama-era guidances. Stahl questioned the Department of Education’s decision to rescind 2011 guidelines on campus sexual assault, now placing a greater burden of proof on the accusers rather than the accused.

“Are you in any way, do you think, suggesting that the number of false accusations are as high as the number of actual rapes or assaults?” Stahl asked Devos.

“Well, one sexual assault is one too many, and one falsely accused individual is one too many,” DeVos replied. Stahl pressed her again on whether those assaults and false accusations occurred at equal rates.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” DeVos said. “But I’m committed to a process that’s fair for everyone involved.”

DeVos fumbled another question about a 2014 Obama-era rule that protects nonwhite students from being punished more harshly than their white peers. The administration is considering rolling back that rule as part of the administration school’s safety plan; the rule’s critics have argued that it deters schools from reporting students to law enforcement. (Proponents maintain that it doesn’t stop schools from acting on threats, but protects nonwhite students from being disciplined more harshly, a defense against institutional racism.)

DeVos, when asked about the rule, avoided specifics: “We are studying that rule. We need to ensure that all students have an opportunity to learn in a safe and nurturing environment. And all students means all students.”

That might have been the end of it, but DeVos’s other recent media appearances compounded her struggles on 60 Minutes. In Parkland, Florida, last week, student journalists criticized her for not giving direct answers to their questions. Then, on a Monday morning interview on the Today show with Savannah Guthrie, DeVos failed to adequately explain the details on Trump’s school safety plan, such as how a program to arm teachers would work.

Guthrie also pressed DeVos on why the president backed away from his original promise to raise the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21; DeVos claimed “everything is on the table,” but didn’t elaborate. The education secretary is leading Trump’s commission to examine school safety and gun violence.

DeVos fired back by arguing she was selectively edited

DeVos’s performance on 60 Minutes was widely panned, and the secretary of education has tried to fight back, implying that the news program selectively edited the segment.

Speaking at a National PTA Legislative Conference in Crystal City, Virginia, on Tuesday, DeVos blasted critics of schools choice — and the CBS editors. “So, now that I have the opportunity to speak unedited, I’m not afraid to call out folks who defend stagnation for what it really is: failure,” she said.

DeVos also took her rehabilitation campaign online, firing off a set of tweets that slammed 60 Minutes for removing context. In one instance, 60 Minutes brought up criticism of DeVos’s vast personal wealth, featuring a pointed question from a student. DeVos sent out a video that said the program didn’t include her response, in which she talked about “writing lots and lots of checks” to donate to education and school choice causes.

DeVos is right: 60 Minutes didn’t include the response to the students’ question. But the clip was used during the segment to illustrate the criticisms DeVos has faced during her tenure, one being her enormous personal fortune. (She’s one of the wealthiest members of Trump’s very rich Cabinet.) And during the segment, Stahl said DeVos considered such attacks “unfair.”

DeVos also tried to address the controversy around her response to Michigan’s school performance — and basically proved Stahl’s point. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias explained, she failed miserably:

She shared a couple of charts showing National Assessment of Educational Progress scores for fourth-graders in Michigan, charts she says she showed to 60 Minutes but “which of course they didn’t show you.”

The charts show that Michigan’s schools used to be about average in both reading and math. But more recently, after DeVos’s allies took over state government, national scores on both the reading and math tests started to stagnate while Michigan’s scores fell.

DeVos also shared part of a Michigan Public Radio news article that said students in charter schools outperformed those in public schools — which makes the point that charter schools may serve their students well, but aren’t necessarily part of a rising tide that lifts all boats in the state’s education system.

Questions about DeVos’s qualifications probably won’t go away

DeVos’s interview is still drawing pushback because it’s more ammunition for opponents who have argued she’s not up to the task of serving all of America’s students.

DeVos was one of Trump’s most contentious nominees. She had no experience as an educator or school administration or as an elected official. A wealthy donor in her home state of Michigan, she was a dedicated proponent of “school choice” policies. Critics feared her ideology would leave public school students and teachers vulnerable. Her limited interactions with public schools complicated her charter and private-school advocacy; she never worked in them, seems to not have visited them, did not send her kids to them.

As a result, DeVos faced a grueling Senate confirmation hearing. Democrats uniformly opposed her school-choice platform, but even some Republicans were wary because, as the Washington Post pointed out, constituents in states with large rural areas often don’t have a lot of private or charter school options.

Her confirmation hearing also featured some head-scratching movements. In response to a question about whether guns belonged in schools, DeVos answered that they shouldn’t be banned because of “grizzly bears.” It’s an answer that, in retrospect, seems even more worrisome now that DeVos could be deciding on this very issue — whether to arm teachers and allow guns in schools — for students across the country.

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