An interview with “60 Minutes” probably made a lot of sense when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos agreed to it. DeVos has a brand problem – she is greeted by protesters almost everywhere she goes and is widely cast as an out-of-touch plutocrat. And, given that she is heading up President Donald Trump’s new committee aimed at figuring out solutions to curb school violence, it seemed like a perfectly-timed moment for DeVos to (re)introduce herself to the public.
And it might have been had DeVos been able to offer up anything other than benign platitudes and non-answers to every question that Lesley Stahl asked her.
How bad was it? Let’s go to the text! (I’ve excerpted whole exchanges between Stahl and DeVos below so that you can get the fuller context.)
1. Gun control
DEVOS: I give a lot of credit to the [Stoneman Douglas] students there for really raising their voices, and I think that they are not going to let this moment go by.
STAHL: They want gun control.
DEVOS: They want a variety of things. They want solutions.
Well, the students at Stoneman Douglas may want a “variety of things.” But the thing they want far more than any other is restrictions on guns. They have been crystal clear about that.
2. School choice
DEVOS: Well, in places where there have been – where there is – a lot of choice that’s been introduced – Florida, for example, the – studies show that when there’s a large number of students that opt to go to a different school or different schools, the traditional public schools actually – the results get better, as well.
STAHL: Now, has that happened in Michigan? We’re in Michigan. This is your home state.
DeVOS: Michi – Yes, well, there’s lots of great options and choices for students here.
STAHL: Have the public schools in Michigan gotten better?
DEVOS: I don’t know. Overall, I – I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.
STAHL: The whole state is not doing well.
DEVOS: Well, there are certainly lots of pockets where this – the students are doing well and –
If I was a boxing referee, I would have stopped this exchange about halfway through. If you are the secretary of education, you have to know you are going to be asked about the effects of school choice – particularly in your home state. So, if you’re going to argue that school choice has made public schools better, you had had better find a whole hell of a lot better spin that “I don’t know.”
And don’t make things worse by trying to claim that there are “lots of pockets” where things are going well. That is what’s known in the business as cherry-picking.
3. School choice (again)
STAHL: The public schools here are doing worse than they did.
DEVOS: Michigan schools need to do better. There is no doubt about it.
STAHL: Have you seen the really bad schools? Maybe try to figure out what they’re doing?
DEVOS: I have not – I have not – I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.
STAHL: Maybe you should.
DEVOS: Maybe I should. Yes.
OH. MY. GOD.
Not only does DeVos admit that she has not put a priority on visiting underperfoming schools – why not?? – but also capitulates the point entirely to Stahl. Did she never think before this interview that visiting poor performing schools might be a good idea? Or is she just stopping by the successes?
4. Her image
STAHL: Why have you become, people say, the most hated Cabinet secretary?
DEVOS: I’m not so sure exactly how that happened. But I think there are a lot of really powerful forces allied against change.
STAHL: Does it hurt?
DEVOS: Sometimes it does. Sometimes it does. Again, I think – I think –
STAHL: Do you ever say –
DEVOS: – I’m more misunderstood than anything.
Um, judging by this interview, DeVos is not misunderstood. She comes across as largely out of touch with the problems plaguing the education system in the country. And appears to be voluntarily wearing rose-colored glasses by seeing only the places where everything is going hunky dory.
5. Sexual assault on campus
STAHL: 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?
DEVOS: Well, one sexual assault is one too many, and one falsely accused individual is one too many.
STAHL: Yeah, but are they the same?
DEVOS: I don’t know. I don’t know. But I’m committed to a process that’s fair for everyone involved.
To repeat: DeVos is the secretary of education. How can she not have an opinion on whether sexual assault and false accusations are the same? Like, you don’t have to necessarily agree with her but at least she should have a thought about all of this, right?
The interview is a painful watch – from beginning to end. If DeVos was coached to be as vague and non-specific in her answers as possible, she should get rid of the person giving her that advice. If she truly doesn’t know the answers to the questions Stahl asked her – or has no opinions about things she absolutely should have opinions on – well, then that is even more worrisome.