Commentary: “What do you think of Betsy?”

“What do you think of Betsy DeVos?”

I get this question a lot. Family members and longtime friends know me as a left-wing activist with over 30 years of experience advocating for everything from women’s reproductive rights to environmental causes to gun control.

I’m a card-carrying member of the ACLU.

My loved ones trust me.

I’m one of them.

A professional, liberal rabble-rouser.

Surely I hate U.S. Secretary of Education DeVos.



While I hold many of the most socialist views, I’m adamantly and unapologetically pro-school choice. As executive director of Florida Parent Network, I’ve been helping families protect and defend their choices for over six years.

I consider myself a progressive and yet support a movement that most progressive politicians oppose.

It’s hard for those who see things in tribal terms to come to grips with this idea.

I don’t have a problem with it.

I’ve been thinking for myself for years.

But I get it. There are so many issues, movements and campaigns out there, bombarding us with information every day, and we’re all fatigued by it. Most just want to know where their political leaders and champions come down on an issue. That’s how they know where they stand as well.

It’s not that they’re lazy or uninterested.

They’re overwhelmed.

I’m Irish and Jewish. A pro-choice feminist from a strong pro-life family. I’m a vegetarian who cooks chicken for friends and loved ones. I’m an anti-capitalist who routinely partners with Americans for Prosperity. I’m the granddaughter of Teamsters who thinks the teachers unions have done serious harm to American education.

I volunteer for Bernie Sanders.

I’m overwhelmed, too, but I don’t get to rely on my political heroes because I don’t have any. I don’t enjoy the privilege of deferring to someone else’s judgment.

I must research and dig for answers to find out how I think.

This means I’m exhausted most of the time.

I was fortunate this week to attend the American Federation for Children’s annual summit in Chicago, networking with educational choice activists from all over the country.

Our education secretary was the keynote speaker.

Here comes that question again.

What do I think of Betsy DeVos?

I like her.

This answer surprises everyone I know.

I agree with her on one issue, educational choice, but I find her agreeable in every way. In the few conversations we’ve had, she has proven herself to be open-minded, kind and generous.

My friends hate when I report this.

“You hardly like anyone, and you like her?”

My genuine and nuanced view of a divisive political figure causes those who trust me to think twice before dismissing someone based on what others think.

In this day and age, that’s a good thing.

Years ago, when Florida started the Gardiner Scholarship program, the Legislature didn’t allocate funding for Step Up for Students (which hosts this blog) to run it properly. Betsy made a personal donation to help us get started. It is a shame that parents, who’ve benefited from this program, have no idea how much she helped them.

She continues to work for children and families all over this country.

Betsy’s is an inclusive message, encouraging us to think outside the box about all the ways personalized learning can help our kids. At the AFC Summit Thursday night, she talked about post-high school learning, other than four-year colleges, that can open up a whole new world regarding career and technical education for our kids. She talked about establishing a federal tax credit scholarship program and the ways in which teachers should be able to control their own personal and professional development.

As she has often said, our movement is about more than vouchers.

I tell advocates in Florida that we don’t have to worry about the mess in D.C. and I follow that same advice. We are a statewide program. We don’t need to argue with opponents about Congress or the White House.

I liked and respected Betsy before she became education secretary and the mess that is D.C. has not changed that.

When asked about how she maintains civility and poise in the midst of such partisan vitriol and anger, Betsy said simply that she applies advice given to her by her father. Turn the page, he would say after challenging episodes. Keep moving. Start the next chapter.

That’s advice that will help all of us as we leave this summit of like-minded folks and tread back into a polarized country. I will keep thinking for myself and puzzling liberal loved ones. Betsy will continue advocating for those who need help the most. And all of us will keep moving.

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1 comment

Doug Tuthill May 3, 2019 - 9:56 am

Catherine, finding the proper balance between tribal conformity and independent thinking is a challenge for us all. In an ideal world, we’d all have the time and ability to research issues and draw our own conclusions. But as you said, we’re all overwhelmed with information about complex topics. So we just defer to our tribal group think. Not sure how we’re going to resolve this dilemma.

I respect your willingness to speak truth to the power. I’m sure many in your tribe consider you a traitor for not demonizing Secretary DeVos.

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