INDIANAPOLIS — Billionaire Betsy DeVos, the new U.S. secretary of education, just gave Vice President Mike Pence his Gloria Swanson/“Sunset Boulevard” moment:
“America, I’m ready for my close-up.”
Pence, a former governor and congressman from Indiana, cast the deciding vote in the U.S. Senate to confirm DeVos. Pence’s vote was the first time in U.S. history a vice president has had to break a tie to confirm a Cabinet appointee.
Pence’s vote was but one history-making part of DeVos’s rise to the Cabinet. Part of the family that made its money by bringing Amway into American culture, DeVos is the first education secretary not only to have no experience as an educator but also the first one have contempt for the idea of public education itself. She and her family have been among the primary funders for the charter school and school voucher movements in America.
That has not endeared her to teachers and other advocates for public education. Nor did her testimony before the Senate when she seemed not to understand basic educational concepts reassure them.
They focused most of their ire on the Republican senators who had received campaign contributions — hard and soft, disclosed and dark — from DeVos and her family. When she was asked during the confirmation hearings if her family could have given as much as $200 million to GOP candidates over the years, DeVos acknowledged that it was possible.
One of the recipients was U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana, who collected $48,600 in campaign funds — that we know of — from DeVos. Concerned citizens from Indiana bombarded Young’s office with requests that he vote against her confirmation or at least declare a conflict of interest and recuse himself from voting.
The response from Young’s office was little more than a shrug:
DeVos cares about kids and education. And the people who disagree with her and support public schools are just a special-interest group.
The reality is that Young never has hidden the fact that he’s a fan of charters and school vouchers. Any voters who cast their ballots for Young assuming he would vote against charter and choice nominees and policies were deluding themselves.
And so are the folks who think that DeVos’s cash alone drove the votes in her favor.
We tend to think of political money in simple cause-and-effect terms. The reality is that the money in politics is much more amorphous than that. We can’t understand its power if we think purely in transactional terms — that a campaign contribution secures support for people or proposals. Political money is more like water, finding every opening, filling every hole, wearing down resistance, eroding support.
In this case, I seriously doubt that Betsy DeVos bought Todd Young’s vote.
No, she gave him money because she knew he was committed to her cause and that nothing — no new information or set of facts — ever would change his mind. She supported him and he supported her because they were of like mind.
That is, of course, one of the most troubling things about our debacle of a debate over education in America.
We have invested massive amounts of money and even more energy into charter schools and school voucher programs across the country over the past 15 years. So far, we have little to show for that huge investment other than some surveys that school choice programs have a therapeutic effect on parents — they feel better about their children’s education if they have more control over it.
Test scores and other measures of student achievement haven’t changed much, if at all. If anything, there’s evidence from the National Assessment of Educational Progress test — otherwise known as “American’s grade card” — that student performance has declined in the states where choice and charter programs are most prevalent.
Those facts aren’t likely to change the minds of DeVos, Young or, for that matter, Pence.
That’s the thing about true believers.
If the facts don’t align themselves with their beliefs, then they seek out “alternative facts.”
Like Gloria Swanson’s fading silent movie star in “Sunset Boulevard,” they create a new reality that aligns itself with what they want to see.
And they’re always convinced that the close-up will reveal beauty, not flaws.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.