A Rocky Appearance For DeVos On '60 Minutes'

Mar 12, 2018
Originally published on March 12, 2018 8:55 pm

"Why have you become, people say, the most hated Cabinet secretary?" Lesley Stahl asked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in a 60 Minutes interview that is drawing lots of attention.

"I'm not so sure how exactly that happened," DeVos responded in the interview, which aired Sunday night on CBS.

DeVos rarely gives interviews outside outlets like conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. But she had some news to discuss. Sunday, President Trump named her head of a new commission on school safety in response to the Parkland shooting.

That appointment came after yet another example of the controversy that has marked her tenure as secretary: a visit by DeVos to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last week that was angrily criticized by some students on social media.

"I give a lot of credit to the students for raising their voices," DeVos told Stahl.

"They want gun control," Stahl responded.

DeVos responded: "They want a variety of things. They want solutions."

During her confirmation hearing last year, DeVos memorably supported the idea of arming teachers — perhaps against grizzly bears, she joked.

She reiterated that support Sunday night, in line with Trump's support for the idea: "It should be an option for schools to consider. ... No one size fits all."

Educators, teachers unions and some policy experts have been critical of the idea. A new working paper from Johns Hopkins argues this would be both risky and ineffective.

The 13-minute segment had several uncomfortable moments. DeVos often seemed at a loss for words as Stahl probed many of the most controversial points in her brief career as secretary: her faux pas about historically black colleges; the rollback of Obama-era transgender student protections, Title IX sexual assault regulations on campuses, and efforts to reduce racial disparities in school discipline. And, of course, her support for school choice, as pursued through vouchers and charters.

DeVos is the wealthiest Cabinet member, the segment pointed out. Her family's investments have included K12 Inc., a for-profit virtual school company.

Stahl questioned DeVos on her decades of philanthropic intervention in the school system in Michigan, where her family has promoted a free market approach to school choice, including for-profit operators of charter schools that receive taxpayer funding.

Studies have found poor performance, particularly in Detroit. Asked whether public schools in Michigan have improved, DeVos answered: "I don't know. Overall, I can't say overall that they have all gotten better."

"Have you seen the really bad schools?" Stahl persisted. "I have not intentionally visited the schools that are underperforming," DeVos answered.

"Maybe you should."

"Maybe I should, yes."

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President Trump also is setting up a commission on school safety. He's asked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to lead it. It will look at everything from arming teachers to age restrictions on gun purchases to video game violence. The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High has thrust the normally press-shy education secretary into the spotlight. She visited the school in Florida last week.


BETSY DEVOS: I come committed on behalf of this administration to continuing to work to find solutions so that no student and no parent ever has to go through what this community has had to endure.

MCCAMMON: And we're joined now by NPR's education correspondent Anya Kamenetz with more about DeVos' positions on guns in schools. Hello, Anya.


MCCAMMON: So up until now, what has been Betsy DeVos' position on school safety?

KAMENETZ: Well, a lot of people probably remember the moment during her confirmation hearing when Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, asked her about guns in schools. And Murphy is really identified with this issue because of the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn.


CHRIS MURPHY: One final question - do you think that guns have any place in or around schools?

DEVOS: I think that's best left to locales and states to decide. If the underlying question is...

MURPHY: You can't say that - you can't say definitively today that guns shouldn't be in schools.

DEVOS: Well, I will refer back to Senator Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyo. I think probably there - I would imagine that there's probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.

MURPHY: If President Trump...

MCCAMMON: So people really seized on that grizzly bear comment. They accused DeVos of being out of touch. And, you know, Anya, polls suggest she is President Trump's least popular Cabinet member. Remind us why DeVos draws so much criticism.

KAMENETZ: Well, since that confirmation hearing, critics have been pointing out that she seems really unprepared for her job on the spot. Of course she's never been an educator. At the same time, she's one of the wealthiest members of a very wealthy Cabinet. And during her philanthropic career, she's really pushed for private, religious and charter and for-profit schools even as her job puts her in charge, of course, of the nation's public schools. And then beyond her background, she's drawn ire for her rollbacks of Obama-era civil rights regulations, especially those protecting transgender students and victims of sexual assault.

MCCAMMON: So we know what DeVos has said in the past about teachers needing guns to protect students from bears. But what has she been saying lately in response to the shooting last month in Parkland, Fla.?

KAMENETZ: Well, she told Lesley Stahl on "60 Minutes" that she sort of supports the idea that states could choose to arm teachers.


LESLEY STAHL: Do you think that teachers should have guns in the classroom?

DEVOS: That should be an option for states and communities to consider. And I hesitate to think of, like, my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Zorhoff (ph) - I couldn't ever imagine her...

STAHL: Right.

DEVOS: ...Having a gun and being trained in that way. But for those who are capable, this is one solution that can and should be considered.

STAHL: So...

DEVOS: But no one size fits all. Every state and every community is going to address this issue in a different way.

KAMENETZ: And she also said on the "Today" show everything is on the table and that we have to get much broader than just talking about guns.

MCCAMMON: DeVos says we have to get much broader. What might she mean by broader?

KAMENETZ: Well, there's a long-standing national divide over what really makes schools safer. DeVos' Education Department held a meeting a few months ago on school safety, and they heard from people who are really concerned about violence in schools who say that we need harder discipline, more zero tolerance-type policies.

And then on the other side of the debate, you have a whole lot of scholars and experts calling for more school counselors, more mental health resources, less suspensions, less expulsions and making sure that schools are safer and emotionally healthier places to be. This is kind of the approach that's really backed up by a lot of research. And really I think it's what we're going to be debating in the months to come.

MCCAMMON: Two very different perspectives on what might be the best way to move forward on this issue - that's NPR's education correspondent Anya Kamenetz. Thank you, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Thank you, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.