Donald Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education has met with considerable praise from conservatives, and for good reason. She has been excellent on school choice issues.
However, the Secretary of Education is not in much of a position to affect school choice policy. Perhaps DeVos will help persuade some Republicans at the state and local level to be less resistant to school choice. Other than that, I’m not sure what she can do for that cause.
By contrast, as anyone who has been paying attention knows, issues of race and sex will be a big part of DeVos’ portfolio. This where I have a concern.
DeVos and her husband aggressively opposed the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) before its passage in 2006. The MCRI was a citizen initiative to ban discrimination based on race, color, sex, or religion in admission to colleges, jobs, and other publicly funded institutions. It was designed to eliminate preferential treatment by public institutions based on these factors.
As a respected conservative voice, DeVos, along with her husband, was probably the MCRI’s most effective opponent. Early on, she argued against putting the issue to a vote, arguing that “a ballot initiative designed to eliminate affirmative action programs in higher education here in Michigan could very well result in 18 months of vitriolic public discourse that centers on racial issues.” Writing in the Grand Rapids Press on July 22, 2003, DeVos asked:
[W]hat good will be served by a ballot initiative? The potential for a racially divisive campaign, complete with the typical kinds of irresponsible rhetoric that often come from both sides, is my chief concern.
This is about as squishy as it gets. The good served by a ballot initiative to ban racial discrimination in the public sector is not obscure. It should as obvious to any conservative as it was to the people of Michigan, who passed the MCRI by a 58-42 margin.
It has been suggested that DeVos opposed the MCRI because her husband was running for governor in 2006 (he lost). I don’t know whether this was, in fact, her motive. However, DeVos and her husband surely understood that the initiative’s presence on the ballot was likely to increase African-American turnout to the detriment of Republican candidates for office in Michigan.
If DeVos’ opposition to the MCRI was based on political considerations specific to 2006, then it may not tell us much about how she will approach civil rights issues as head of the Department of Education beginning in 2017. Indeed, even principled opposition to the MCRI wouldn’t necessarily mean that DeVos won’t be good on the race and sex issues that need to be addressed at the Department of Education.
However, DeVos’ opposition to the MCRI, and in particular her stated desire to avoid fighting for the anti-discrimination principle based on fear of a “racially divisive campaign,” does not inspire confidence. If “the swamp” is to be “drained,” the Trump administration will need fighters, not squishes.