Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Opinion: Another fake 'gaffe,' involving Betsy DeVos and grizzlies

Here we go again. Last week we had the supposed "gaffe" Ben Carson committed when one of his comments was taken out of context. Now we have another one involving Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump's nominee for education secretary -- who supposedly thinks American schools are on the verge of a mass, multi-front attack by grizzly bears, or something.

Except that, just as in last week's case, believing this requires one to ignore the entire context of the hearing and the dialogue DeVos had with the senators on the committee.

At the start of the questioning portion of the hearing, Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming made the following remarks, punctuated by a question:

"You're going to be dealing with a variety of states, from high-population to low-population. I happen to come from the lowest-population state. It has some specific challenges in education – call it rural and frontier challenges. We don't allow a child to travel more than an hour by bus to or from school. And as a result, we have some schools that have one or two students. It's a little different situation than was even envisioned with No Child Left Behind. … Rural and frontier has some specific problems. Part of them are that the submission of some of the applications and some of the applicable reports have no bearing on what we're doing. And that's important when we have the rural aspect, as well as the Wind River Indian Reservation, which is the home of two tribes. … One of the most important jobs you'll have is the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, and I'm pleased with what you've said about it. Can you talk about your plans to engage rural and frontier states and communities in that process?"

This was a question premised on a mainstream conservative belief, which is that blanket regulations and requirements set in Washington, D.C., often fail to take into account the unique circumstances that pop up all across our vast nation. And DeVos clearly recognized that premise in her response:

"Well, Senator, thank you, thank you for that question, and I too enjoyed our meeting in your office. I particularly enjoyed hearing a little bit about the special needs of schools like the Wapiti school that has the grizzly-bear fence surrounding it. I think that is a unique need to Wyoming, certainly. But certainly rural schools and rural settings require different approaches and different options. And so I refer to the Every Student Succeeds Act, and I think (in) the implementation of that, and Wyoming's plan for that, it will be important to recognize the unique needs of the rural population that you have, as well as many of the other states represented here in the committee. ... And I would, if confirmed, look forward to working with you and some of your other colleagues that face some of those same types of challenges, such as Sen. (Susan) Collins (of Maine) and Sen. (Lisa) Murkowski (of Alaska), and work with you to address the specific needs of rural communities and high-rural-population states."

So there's the context for what all the headlines are about: an exchange about an hour and a half later between DeVos and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut:

The premise of Murphy's question is the opposite of the conservative one I mentioned earlier: It's the liberal impulse to believe Washington elites in their well-insulated bubble can set blanket regulations and requirements that make sense despite all of the unique circumstances that pop up all across our vast nation. What's more, his question is as broad as it could possibly be: "Do you think guns have any place in or around schools?" (Emphasis added.) Well, does that include school security officers? Faculty and staff trained to use their weapons in the case of an armed attacker? Parents who keep a concealed weapon in the vehicle they might happen to drive onto school property while dropping off or picking up their children? "Any place in or around schools" is broad enough to mean anything at all.

When DeVos responds with the reference to her earlier exchange with Enzi about the school that is so threatened by grizzly bears that it built a fence to keep them out, it's perfectly clear she's rejecting Murphy's premise -- not necessarily about guns, but about the more general liberal premise about blanket regulations and Washington's ability to know about or anticipate all the unique circumstances out there. That's all. It's dishonest to pretend she was suggesting every school faces such threats, or even that many do. On the contrary, the uniqueness of the problem is the entire point.

What this really boils down to is the refusal of DeVos -- like a number of Trump appointees, and Republicans and conservatives more generally -- to hew to the liberal orthodoxy about matters such as education policy. There's a great deal of disdain for DeVos among those educrats and status quoists who can't stand the thought of a U.S. education secretary who understands traditional public schools aren't the best option for some children. And as we've seen in Georgia recently, they'll say anything and everything -- whatever it takes, truth be damned -- to suppress that kind of thinking.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.