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Column: Betsy DeVos is simply clueless and cruel

  • Helaine Olen

  • Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

For The Washington Post
Published: 3/28/2019 10:40:08 PM
Modified: 3/28/2019 10:40:14 PM

The question of who is the worst member of President Donald Trump’s administration could keep a dinner party entertained for hours. Is it Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the multimillionaire who felt impelled to lie about being a billionaire? Former Environmental Protection Agency administrator and schnorrer extraordinaire Scott Pruitt? Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, who, when he was a U.S. attorney, let billionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein off with a mere slap on the wrist? Or could it be acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who has gone from turning the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau into a joke to attempting to end the Affordable Care Act?

All worthy contenders, to be sure. But my nod goes to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. It’s not simply that she combines manifest incompetence with the cluelessness of the wealthy — that can be said about many a member of Trump’s Cabinet. It’s that there’s something extra-special distasteful about a uninformed billionaire heir with no need for government help routinely sticking it to those who do, especially those who are frantically seeking to get ahead.

The latest example of DeVos’ unique horribleness came Tuesday, when she faced a House committee and defended the Trump administration’s budget, which would cut her department’s funding by 12 percent. This necessitates, she claimed, cutting the almost $18 million appropriation for the Special Olympics, a program for disabled children, even as charter schools get an extra $60 million.

The Special Olympics? This is comic-book-villain-level mean.

“I still can’t understand why you would go after disabled children in your budget,” Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., told her. DeVos kept pleading to Lee and others that “difficult decisions” needed to be made. How hard could they be? Under harsh questioning from Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., DeVos revealed she didn’t even know the Special Olympics serves 272,000 children. But noblesse oblige! The program, she told the committee, is “well supported by the philanthropic sector.”

However, picking on the Special Olympics is minor stuff for DeVos. She’s an education hobbyist, whose introduction to the politics of public schooling came via philanthropy. Neither she nor her children ever attended a public school, but this doesn’t stop DeVos from thinking she knows the answers. She’s a longtime advocate of privatization, taking taxpayer money out of the public system to support charter and religious schools. The education budget she is promoting cuts back programs that help fund everything from after-school programs to textbooks for students in low-income communities, even as it offers up to $5 billion in tax credits to encourage private school enrollment. She’s rolled back Obama-era regulations meant to cut into the number of school suspensions, an ineffective disciplinary tactic that is disproportionately used on African-American and Latino students and that contributes to high dropout rates.

But it’s when it comes college that DeVos really earns her dubious honor. Helping students who racked up tens of thousands of dollars in student loans attending for-profit colleges that lured them in with phony come-ons and job placement statistics? Not on DeVos’ watch. The Education Department stalled Obama-era rules intended to make it easier for these people to receive relief, and backed down only when the a court stepped in last year. Now DeVos’ department is moving slower than a tortoise. According to reporting by CNN, the Department of Education did not review any requests for loan dismissal under “borrower defense” provisions between June and September of last year, and is refusing to answer questions about how many it has signed off on since.

Why is this so horrible? First-generation college students are more likely to enroll in for-profit colleges than their peers. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, in most states, these schools disproportionately attract economically vulnerable groups, including African-Americans and those coming from low-income families. They also attract older, nontraditional students, including military veterans. These are the exact people who need the most help from the Education Department, not a billionaire’s brushoff.

DeVos is also supporting eliminating the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which permits borrowers who can show they worked for a nonprofit or the government — think teachers and librarians and firefighters — for 10 years while making regular and on-time student loan payments to see the remainder of their balance forgiven. True, the program is rife with problems that long pre-date DeVos. According to data released last year by the Education Department, of the first 28,000 borrowers who applied for discharge of their debts under program, only 96 were granted their promised relief, thanks, in part, to issues with loan servicers. But people made lifetime career and financial decisions based on eligibility for this program, often taking lower-paying positions or working in less-than-lucrative careers, only to discover years later — when it’s too late to recalibrate — they are mistaken.

Yet DeVos is not exactly sympathetic. As states attempt to crack down on student loan servicers for this and other problems, DeVos is claiming that weaker federal standards should take precedence over tougher local laws. And the Education Department has fought people who’ve taken it to court over retroactive rulings they were not eligible for the program.

All of this is awful. Combined, it is devastating.

DeVos is the worst of the worst not just because she offers a perfect refutation of the common belief that wealth is a sign of talent and smarts. Nor is it that if she gets her way on a range of issues, she would likely leave our public education system in worse shape than when she started her job. It’s that there is something particularly distasteful about DeVos, whose wealth is inherited, essentially kicking sand in the faces of people who are trying to get ahead by doing what society tells them to do — get an education.

For a government official, there’s little worse than that.

Helaine Olen is a contributor to The Washington Post and the author of Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.

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