Donald Trump wearing a Betsy DeVos facemask

Betsy DeVos is Not the School-Reopening Mastermind.

Written by Noah G. on Thursday July 16, 2020

She’s been touting limited government, local control, and school choice too long for that.

You may be wondering why education secretary Betsy DeVos was recently trending on Google and Twitter.

This past Sunday, in back-to-back interviews with Dana Bash and Chris Wallace, she tried to justify the Trump administration’s push to reopen all U.S. schools – and floundered when presented with counter-evidence. As a result, she has received deserved ridicule from Democrats and even some Republicans.

Now, I love a good DeVos joke (especially the grizzly ones), but this time the absurd things coming out of her mouth are not entirely hers to own. Much of this nonsense is coming from the White House.

The COVID-19 backdrop

We’ve seen some pretty terrible graphs over the past month. They show that the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. is accelerating, even as other countries begin to see relief.

That hasn’t stopped President Trump from trying to send all the kids back to school – regardless of local circumstances. On July 8, he threatened to withhold federal money from schools that didn’t reopen:

DeVos reiterated this talking point about other countries opening schools in her Sunday interviews. Here’s a table showing these countries compared to the U.S. on July 7 (the day before the president’s tweet):

Country New cases New cases per million people
Denmark 46 7.9
Germany 390 4.7
Norway 35 6.5
Sweden 1 642 162.6
United States 43 686 151.0

As you can see, the U.S. was #1 in new cases and #2 in new cases per million. (We have since passed Sweden.)

In other words, the countries opening their schools have the virus under control (except Sweden, which is rapidly becoming a cautionary tale). We do not.

The real mastermind is… Trump!

Truthfully, I don’t think DeVos is acting based on her principles. Her principles have always favored a limited role for the federal government in education. On every other issue – vouchers, loan forgiveness, the education budget – she’s argued for reducing the role of the Ed department. Her rhetoric has always revolved around placing control back in the hands of students and parents.

So why is DeVos, champion of choice and limited government, suddenly trying to force schools to reopen? Here’s where I start speculating.

DeVos has long suffered from low popularity. She also works in an administration famous for replacing key people at the drop of a hat, especially those who look bad or seem disloyal. By going along with President Trump, she hopes to secure her unstable position.

Meanwhile, the president is fighting his own battle for public perception. When the economy was doing well, he got to claim he was winning. In his mind, the coronavirus came and wrecked all that. His vision of winning did not include lockdowns, school closures, stock market dips, or ceding the spotlight to Dr. Fauci.

That’s why, since the pandemic began, President Trump has been motivated by a wishful delusion: that if we plug our ears and close our eyes, the virus will disappear on its own, and business will boom like it did in 2019. It explains his obsession with reopening schools and businesses, as well as his contempt for public health experts. He’s trying to make himself a “winner” again – even if it means Americans lose.