Billionaire Blunders: Appointing Education Chiefs Who Know Little about Public Schools

Anyone remember Cathy Black? Don’t think so. In 2011, Michael Bloomberg, billionaire and New York City Mayor appointed the 66 year-old head of the Hearst magazine chain–a “superstar manager,” he said–to head the 1.1 million student district. Neither having the requisite three years of teaching experience or a master’s degree or professional degree in administering schools, the state commissioner waived these requirements in order for Black to become Chancellor.*

The uproar that followed over a choosing a Chancellor who knew little about public schools–her children were educated in private schools–led to Bloomberg firing Black 95 days after she took office (see here and here).

Then there is Betsy DeVos, billionaire President Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. Raised in a wealthy family–her father was an auto parts manufacturer in Michigan–she attended private Christian schools, married into the Amway fortune, sent her children to Christian private schools, and became a philanthropist and fervent advocate for vouchers and for-profit charter schools in Detroit and the state of Michigan. She has had no experience as a manager of a large organization (see here and here; for more positive views of DeVos, see here here, and here)

The recent Senate hearings where she was cuddled by the Republican majority of Senate and grilled by the minority Democrats revealed a great deal about DeVos’s thinking about public schools and the direction that federal monies and regulations should move. A zealous advocate for school choice in Michigan through vouchers and for-profit charter schools, she sees more parental choice as the direction for the U.S. Department of Education. Rapid-fire questions from Democrats on the Senate Committee revealed the following (see here and here)

*lack of knowledge that it is federal law protecting the rights of disabled children and youth and it cannot be left to the states to enforce, as she said.

*lack of knowledge of the difference between tests showing student proficiency and tests showing student growth over time.

*refusal to say that while public schools should be held to account for student outcomes, charter and voucher-accepting schools should not be held to the same standard.

Uninformed as DeVos is about education policy aimed at 50 million public school  children and youth in the U.S. and inexperienced as she is in managing anything beyond a family foundation, DeVos was approved in a Republican controlled Committe, in a party-line 12-11 vote. Her endorsement from the split Senate committee will gain the full Senate’s approval where Republicans have a majority. DeVos will become the next U.S. Secretary of Education.

Unlike Mayor Bloomberg’s recognition that he erred in appointing Cathy Black as Chancellor in 2011, imagining President Donald Trump withdrawing the nomination is, well, unimaginable.

Critics claim that both President Trump and Secretary DeVos will press hard for expansion of vouchers and for-profit charters with federal dollars. And that as Frederick Hess says may well be the kiss of death for a bottom-up movement of more parental choice in schools especially in rural and urban poverty areas (home schooling, vouchers, and charters). Perhaps.

Nonetheless, here we have two billionaires who made decisions that were (and are) mistakes. They made bad judgments. Being a billionaire does not protect you from blundering.

Of course, mistakes are essential to learning. Such blunders can lead to corrections that lead to success. None of us is free of error. Here is what basketball super star Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls had to say about learning from mistakes.

I have taken more than 9000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I have been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I have failed over and over again in my life; and that is why I succeed.

One billionaire corrected his mistake. The other billionaire won’t.


*Bloomberg had appointed a non-educator, Joel Klein in 2002. Both the Mayor and new chancellor shared a similar agenda. Klein had gone through the New York City schools and had managerial experience in the U.S. Department of Justice.



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19 responses to “Billionaire Blunders: Appointing Education Chiefs Who Know Little about Public Schools

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    Vouchers—Schools choose the students they want and spend money to advertise how great they are.

  2. Sheri Wernsing


  3. Mary Snow

    Consider a somewhat similar situation in New Mexico – the 2010 appointment of Hanna Skandera as Secretary of Education by Governor Susana Martinez. Due to continued opposition by Democrats and the teachers union, she served as secretary designate until 2015 when she was finally confirmed by the state senate to serve another 4 years. (ref

    Since 2010 she has worked to improve the NM school systems. Change in public education is contentious as evidenced by New Mexico news stories on this topic over the past 7 years. To better understand problems with the US public education system read – “Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing our Kids for the Innovation Era” [Tony Wagner, Ted Dintersmith]

  4. It’s a truly dark day when Larry Cuban calls out a nominee and goes political! Thanks Larry – I’ve had sleepless nights over her appointment and the damage she can do as quickly as the damage Trump has been doing. The myth of failing schools is perpetuated. Why parents think choice and voucher is a silver bullet I will never understand.

  5. The appointment of billionaire Betsy disappoints me too, Larry. I don’t know who Hillary Clinton would have appointed, but do you think it would have netted a whole lot different? In the bumper-sticker-driven K-12 scene, ” “school choice” (the code word for privatization) rates high, and charter schools was one of the “four pillars” of the Obama Administration’s “Race to the Top.”

    Seems to me that the new Secretary’s one-note dedication to “choice” will take care of itself. The passage of ESSA, pretty much clipped the Secretary’s wings to do anything, and money for any new Fed initiatives at K-12 will be hard to come by. What Fed action to come seems largely at pre and post K-12. The new Secretary is equally unqualified there, but no “leadership” from the DEdD or the Sec is needed or would have been tolerated.

    LaMar Alexander and Patty Murray punted K-12 back to the states. We saw how that worked out pre-1965, and little in EdLand has advanced since then. It’s still early in the game for school reform and classroom practice.

  6. I am a bit curious as to why she would want the job. She is going to be disliked and not trusted by the department personnel, and the teachers unions will not pay any attention to her, If she wants to push her agenda of privatization she is welcome to try. It would be like trying to push on a glacier and get movement. Is one incompetent at the top really going to make a huge change? Of course I think Trump is going to test that idea to the max. I teach at a private school and we are not expecting any great changes in the next 4 years.

  7. Lisa B

    If Betsy has her way, students in “government schools” will be required to say their Amen’s at the end of every test and before every meal. The repeal of the Johnson Act and the new rules for the DHS on white extremism is what the far right, religious zealots have been waiting for. This will go way beyond the “Keep Christ in Christmas” movement. These people feel they have been denied for too long. This is not about Trump, it’s about Mike Pence running the Nation. Mike Pence is the extreme right’s “messiah” and Betsy is part of the plan….nothing more.

  8. kbuffett

    What a great post! This was the first time I have ever heard of Cathy Black – the parallels between the two women are incredible. As someone who has previously interned for the U.S. Department of Education, I know how vital its role is in today’s political and educational landscape for the short and long term success of U.S. students.

    I am trying to stay optimistic about the appointment, but the numerous articles that have been published across the internet talking about her qualifications and experience (or lack thereof) have not done much to quell my fears. Although I do not personally agree with the idea of school choice, I hope that if confirmed, Betsy makes a positive impact on our schools. Alas, only time will tell.

  9. Pingback: Demise of Unbiased Education Research at Johns Hopkins | tultican

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