Robert G. Holland,
Who is “smarter than the average bear?”
Well, maybe Yogi Bear, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character who regularly made that boast, but not the caricature of U.S. Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos as presented by those most sternly opposing her Senate confirmation.
Ripping out of context one DeVos response to a question posed at the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions’ Jan. 17 hearing, her foes depicted President Donald Trump’s nominee as being unbearably dumb for favoring guns being in schools to protect children from grizzly bears.
Social media brimmed with memes suggesting DeVos actually believes schools in general face a clear and present danger from grizzlies. The late-night funny boys had a field day.
Granted, when Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) asked a very broad question (Do you think guns have any place in or around schools? DeVos should have realized that drawing an example from a small school in Wyoming that has a fence to keep grizzlies away from the children’s outdoor playground might not be the most pertinent to offer a liberal senator from an urban state that experienced one of the most horrendous schoolhouse massacres in American history (Sandy Hook).
A sharper response would have raised the issue of deranged individuals gaining access to schools and slaughtering innocent schoolchildren before first responders can intervene.
Could better mental-health screening ever safeguard 100 percent against these atrocities? Could armed school security guards prevent such horrors? Or might the best approach be to train carefully selected teachers and administrators to carry concealed weapons?
Surely such a solution is not for a U.S. secretary of education to impose, but rather one to be decided by educators, parents, police departments, elected representatives, and others in diverse communities.
Nevertheless, as Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Kyle Wingfield observed, DeVos’s chosen reply came within the broader context of a theme often repeated during the three-hour hearing: the need for the federal education agency to be sensitive to vastly differing local school situations in administering regulations.
Early in the hearing, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) spoke at length of the special challenges faced in his state’s rural and frontier communities. DeVos sympathized and said that in meeting Enzi in his Senate office that she had particularly enjoyed learning of the Wapiti School (located near Yellowstone National Park) that had found it necessary to erect a grizzly-bear fence for protection.
“I think that is a unique need to Wyoming, certainly,” DeVos remarked. “But certainly rural schools and rural settings require different approaches and different options.”
Ninety minutes later, when Murphy asked the question that implied all schools should be gun-free zones, DeVos rejected the idea of a uniform policy imposed from Washington, D.C., and cited the remote Wyoming school as one facing circumstances vastly different from the norm.
“I would imagine there’s a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies,” DeVos said.
PolitiFact quoted local and state education officials in Wyoming as saying there is no gun in Wapiti Elementary School, given that Wyoming policy bans weapons on school property. However, without acknowledging any contradiction, PolitiFact also reported that “decisions about wildlife defensive measures are made at the local level and not reported to the state.” Hence, there is a bear fence but supposedly no one within the school is armed for the bear.
None of those facts alters the context of DeVos’s making a point about the stark differences between urban, suburban, and rural schools and the wisdom of not imposing one-size-fits-all policy prescriptions from Washington, D.C.
Furthermore, all the grizzly or grisly jokes circulated throughout the media will not change the fact the nominee has devoted her life and a significant chunk of her wealth to helping families — many of them of modest or meager means — choose the best schools for their children.
Just one impressive yield from her hard work comes in the more than 21,000 National School Choice Week (NSCW) events currently being held across the 50 states to celebrate all kinds of parental choice, including public school magnets and charters, open enrollment, private schools, homeschooling, online learning, and hybrids of all the above.
Betsy DeVos got the ball rolling for NSCW through the American Federation for Children with just 150 events in 2011. She is not as caricatured. She is a smart and accomplished businesswoman who cares deeply about children and the future of education.