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The Journal Gazette

  • Helaine Olen

Saturday, March 30, 2019 1:00 am

The miseducation of Betsy DeVos, the Cabinet's worst

Helaine Olen

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?

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, who, when he was a U.S. attorney, let billionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein off with a slap on the wrist?

Or 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. But my nod goes to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. It's not simply that she combines manifest incompetence with the cluelessness of the wealthy. There's something extra-special distasteful about an uninformed billionaire heir with no need for government help routinely sticking it to those who do.

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, even as charter schools get an extra $60 million (Trump has since promised the funding will stay intact).

The Special Olympics? This is comic-book-villain-level mean. DeVos kept pleading that “difficult decisions” needed to be made. How hard could they be? Under harsh questioning, DeVos revealed she didn't even know the Special Olympics serves 272,000 children. But noblesse oblige! The program, she said, is “well supported by the philanthropic sector.”

Picking on the Special Olympics is minor stuff for DeVos. She's an education hobbyist. 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 taking taxpayer money out of the public system to support charter and religious schools.

But it's when it comes to 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 rules intended to make it easier for these people to receive relief.

Why is this so horrible? First-generation 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. 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 firemen – 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. 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. She is claiming 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 Washington Post opinion writer focusing on politics, economics and American life.