DeVos commended the student activists in Parkland, Florida, who after the massacre at their school last month have spearheaded a movement advocating for stronger gun-control legislation. But the education secretary didn’t mention their gun-control objective explicitly in her praise—and when Stahl stressed that stronger gun laws are baked into their mission, DeVos deflected: “They want a variety of things,” she responded. “They want solutions.” DeVos then went on to reiterate her support for controversial plans to equip teachers with guns, before seeming to back away from the idea: “I couldn’t ever imagine her [my first-grade teacher] having a gun and being trained in that way.”
More back-and-forth ensued, after which DeVos and Stahl arrived at a moment that’s since gotten some of the most attention: a question centered on the outcomes of Michigan’s more than two-decade-long charter-school-expansion project, which she helped shepherd and bankroll. Pushing back against the contention that charter schools and voucher programs deprive traditional public schools of funding, DeVos insisted that achievement at traditional public schools actually increases when a large percentage of children opt to enroll in privately run schools. Stahl asked whether Michigan’s schools have in fact gotten better thanks to the charter-school experiment. DeVos responded:
“I don’t know. Overall, I—I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better.”
The reality, as Stahl retorted, is quite the opposite of what DeVos initially suggested: Michigan ranks toward the very bottom of the country on national reading and math assessments. “Despite two decades of charter-school growth,” Politico reported last year, “the state’s overall academic progress has failed to keep pace with other states”
Generally speaking, experts were quick to scrutinize the ways in which she phrased comments and sidestepped tough questions, the ways in which she moved her body and shifted her facial expressions. And of course, they tried to make sense of why much of her delivery was so abysmal.
Some waffled over whether she intentionally dodged certain questions or genuinely didn’t know the answer. Her 60 Minutes snafu was either “a matter of total incompetence or willful ignorance,” suggested Joshua Starr, the CEO of PDK International, a professional educators’ association. “That’s either a stunning lack of knowledge or an outright lie.” But a few concluded her to be categorically disingenuous. Luis Huerta, an associate professor of education and public policy at Columbia University’s Teachers College, argued that DeVos’s nonanswers and evasions and seeming refusal to support her claims with data were deliberate.
Intention aside, observers emphasized that one of the greatest flaws of her 60 Minutes interview was something less political: DeVos, they argued, simply doesn’t have a policy background nor personal experience in public schools, qualities that are critical for the country’s education chief. And for Vanderbilt’s Smrekar, all of this—DeVos’s lack of knowledge and authority and insight, and her resulting inability to help others by providing guidance and leadership—amounts to “educational malpractice.”