By Rebecca Stokem, National News Writer
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has faced criticism this past week following an interview she gave to Lesley Stahl on CBS’s 60 Minutes. DeVos spoke with Stahl on a variety of topics, including shootings and gun control in schools, as well as reiterating her plans for school choice for students and their families. This interview was alarming to some, including the Trump White House, because of DeVos’s fumbling of certain talking points and uncomfortable body language. Very early in the interview, Stahl said to DeVos that her answers “sounded like talking instead of acting.” DeVos indeed talked around many questions, and often gave contradictory responses. She simultaneously stated that arming teachers may be a good option for states and communities to consider, but then also stated that it would be difficult to imagine her first-grade teacher carrying a gun. DeVos recently visited the Parkland, Florida schools where the most recent shooting occurred, and received negative feedback from students on Twitter, who tweeted comments such as, “You came to our school just for publicity and avoided our questions,” and, “Betsy DeVos came to my school, talked to three people, and pet a dog. This is in case the press tries to say something else later.”
DeVos also struggled to discuss aspects of her school choice platform. She spoke about providing families with the option of sending their students to private or charter schools as a better alternative to public education, but spoke around the statistics that test scores in public schools have increased over the past 25 years. By removing children from the public school setting, her program also removes funding from the public schools, as that money will follow the student into his or her new school. It is difficult to say whether this plan truly works or not, as there is conflicting data from different school districts across the country. DeVos used Florida as an example during the interview, claiming that public schools have also benefitted from having more students choose alternative education routes. Stahl gave a counterexample of DeVos’s home state of Michigan where the interview took place, explaining, “The whole state is not doing well,” and, “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.” DeVos attempted to explain that certain “pockets” of the state were doing well, but did concede to the fact that Michigan schools are underperforming the national average overall. DeVos expressed that she has not “intentionally visited schools that are underperforming,” to which Stahl replied, “Maybe you should.” DeVos agreed that she should.
Many education experts and scholars found DeVos’s interview to be alarming, and another example of her under-preparedness for the position. In an interview with The Hill, Claire Smrekar, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University whose research focuses include school choice, stated, “I found [the interview] to be somewhere between disappointing and disturbing.” The past Friday following the interview, DeVos published an op-ed in CNN in which she outlined a 5-step plan to improve safety in schools:
1. Acknowledge and improve students’ mental health issues.
2. Make a continuous effort to expand & reform mental health programs (which President Trump has pledged to do).
3. Improve background checks for purchasing firearms. (States would be encouraged to pass a law allowing law enforcement or family to remove guns from anyone who is a “demonstrated threat to themselves or others and to prevent those individuals temporarily from purchasing new firearms.”)
4. Train school staff to use guns in a crisis situation. (This would be on a volunteer basis, and DeVos encourages communities to hire retired veterans and law enforcement for this task).
5. As a final proposal, DeVos has stated a willingness to chair Trump’s Federal Commission on School Safety to formulate further recommendations.
DeVos recognized that this plan was not a “one-size fits all” solution, but explained in the op-ed that the Commission would continue to look for solutions that are more specific in order not to “abandon America’s children.”
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, March 20th print edition.
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