Sunday, October 15, 2017

My Dinner with Betsy

As promised, I did attend the Washington Policy Center's "gala" fundraiser that featured Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as well as Neil Cavuto from FOX News. 

Here's my account as published in The Stranger today.

This is a longer version that I wrote for this blog:

Cast of characters
-       Lots of thin blonde women of all ages; men mostly in suits but women ranged from gowns to jeans, flats to stilettos.  The crowd skewed heavily to over 50.
-       A huge security presence with visible firepower but inside the event room it was not as noticeable.
-       Notables: Bill Bryant (former GOP governor candidate), John Carlson (master of ceremonies), Cindi Williams (Washington State Charter Commissioner), Tim Eyman (bright orange t-shirt), Dino Rossi, Hans Zeiger (WA State Senator), Sec’y of State Kim Wyman, Rodney Tom, Slade Gorton, the Ackerley family (included two very bored little boys) being honored as “Champions of Freedom.”
-       Corporate sponsors – ATT, Wells Fargo, Chevron, Brown Bear Carwash, Silver Cloud Inns, Walmart, Boeing, Verizon, Kemper Freeman (the Bellevue developer who got two shout-outs for providing the crowd with free parking) – but where was Starbucks? 
-       Starbucks is a donor to the Washington Policy Center.  They told me last week that they were not sponsors of the dinner but would have a table.  If they did, it wasn’t labeled.  It’s an odd thing for Starbucks to have an outward progressive face in our region and yet, behind closed doors, be supporting a right-wing group who is associated with the Koch Brothers and ALEC.
-       Minority Report – 8 blacks, 13 Asians, 3 Hispanics, 7 SE Asians but two blacks were a couple who gave the invocation (plus all the staff working were mostly POC) – That represents about 2% of the 1500 people in attendance.
-       Photo booth signs “WTH?”  (Guessing WTF is too scary) and “I’m kind of a big deal.” 

The Bellevue Hyatt is just like most high-end hotels; lots of marble, a soaring atrium, lots of white people walking around but last night, at the Washington Policy Center dinner, there was something else.  Lots of security personnel in all-black uniforms, striding thru the lobby, carrying black riot helmets and large black duffle bags.  Arriving hotel guests seemed nonplussed at this.

Most of the attendees heeded the advice to get there early and milled and chatted for about two hours before the doors opened to the massive party room.  Republicans like to make you work for your pleasures so the alcohol was at the end of a long reception area; the music didn’t even start for until five.  

In the lobby, I met Donnie (fictitious name), a scrubbed-clean-as-a-whistle Morman from Idaho who works recruiting college students for a group called Students for Liberty, a libertarian group.  

Donnie was young and earnest.  He said his group “loves Betsy DeVos’ ideas” I asked him about Trump and he gave a nervous laugh.  “I try to separate his policies from his personality.” I pressed him on that one, asking how he did that, given Trump’s outsized personality.  He said, “Yeah, it’s tough.”

But he was a thoughtful guy, saying nothing was going to get done if elected officials didn’t work together and “agree to disagree” but move on. 

He said it was hard when liberals thought conservative means racist.  I mentioned that liberals feel like conservatives think that they are not patriotic.  He said, “Yeah, we both have tags we don’t like.”

I also talked with the Baumgartners of Tacoma, Lucy and Sal (also a fictitious name).  Both were in their late ‘70s.  I asked them about Trump and Lucy shook her head furiously.  “We didn’t vote for him,” she said.  Sal snorted, “He needs to go.”  I asked if it was about his personality or his policies or both.  They agreed Trump’s agenda was fine but that his personality was terrible and he needed to “shut up and get something done.”  They said for the first time in their lives, they had not voted for president.

After milling around for about two hours, people were getting hungry.

Finally the doors opened.  Security had shrunk into the shadows of the enormous room and attendees got loud and lively.  There was a huge flag behind the podium and tv screens, front and back, so attendees seated in any direction could see the speakers. 

I was seated at the very back at a table with a woman from Vashon Island and her father, and an elderly couple with hearing issues and another elderly man with an NRA belt buckle.  We had our salads on the table but they started the program quickly as DeVos had to leave right after her speech.

The event started with – what else – the Pledge of Allegiance – to that oversized flag.  Food?  Not yet, now we have to sing the national anthem. 

The organizers did finally allow us to eat the salad but then, made us wait until after DeVos spoke to get the entrée.   The right-wing makes you work for your $350 dinner.

Finally DeVos.  She received a standing ovation after her introduction; she was wearing a sober black suit with diamond earrings. She noted she now has a local connection as her son-in-law is from Mulkiteo.

DeVos’ main message on public education is simple – choice.   Not being an educator nor having gone to public schools, she may not know much about testing issues, the level of poverty for kids in public schools, Special Education needs, ELL needs, homeless student needs – no, let’s create a voucher program and put the money into the hands of parents and let them figure it out.

She also told anecdotal local stories of students who left traditional public schools and – spoiler alert! – did great things elsewhere.  She mentioned one student leaving to go to a charter school called Excel.  What she must not have been told is that school had management problems and now got folded into a large California charter group called Green Dot. 

She then went into several analogies to help the crowd understand her point about choice.  Using food trucks.  She said that eating out doesn’t mean you don’t like supermarkets or cooking at home. 
 “So if you visit a food truck, does it mean you hate restaurants?  Or are trying to put grocery stores out of business? No.  You are simply making the right choice for you based on your individual needs at the time.”
But choice is no choice if 1) the money you get doesn’t cover the costs for most private schools and 2) most of those schools don’t provide school lunch, transportation, Special Ed or ELL services.   Your “choice” gets greatly diminished.  And, in the end, you are allowing people who could pay their own private school bills to use public dollars AND allowing public dollars into schools that are religious or may discriminate against some classes of children.

 DeVos has consistently refused to state if schools that discriminate against gay/transgendered students would face consequences for doing so.

She said that she didn’t want Congress to do this but that she wants to “assist” states in creating choice (meaning they pass voucher bills).  She noted that 26 states and D.C. have school choice programs.

However, the news on voucher programs is not good as explained in this Feb. 2017 article from the LA Times.

She then took a jab at the left: 
“There are too many politicians, celebrities and other elites who say no. What students and parents currently have is good enough.  Then, those same politicians and celebrities turn around and write big checks to send their own children to prestigious private schools.

Choice for me but not for thee.”
Oh pot, meet the kettle.   DeVos and her husband sent their own children to private schools. 

She did mention working with “President Trump” but that was the first and last time I heard that name during the entire dinner.  Even Cavuto didn’t mention him.

She left to a standing ovation and we finally got dinner (Ora King Salmon & Peppercorn Kobe Top Sirloin Duet, smashed purple potatoes, fried Brussel sprouts with red wine beet puree).  After dinner, we had an invocation by an African-American woman whereupon the hard-of-hearing guy at my table loudly said, “Who the hell is that?” 

There was also an announcement that the Washington Policy Center is receiving a $330K grant to fight to make Washington the next right-to-work state.  Big applause.  There were also jabs at Seattle’s attempt to create an income tax.   It was noted that WPC had gotten 50 bills thru the Washington Legislature, “That’s clout and influence.”

Then came Neil Cavuto from FOX News.  (The Seattle Times reported that press had to leave after DeVos spoke.)

If DeVos was the good-for-you oatmeal part of the evening, Cavuto was the clog-up-your-arteries red meat.

Cavuto was genial and entertaining.  He was also a world-class asshole.  He made rueful fun of his daughter who he called “kinda liberal” and that “she misses Obama” which brought probably the loudest booing of the night. 

He said that he told Sean Hannity that his viewers are the ones “who own the trailerparks.”

He told the audience that with him being half Italian and half Irish that he had been natural for him to be considering being a priest.  At which, my near-deaf tablemate yelled to his wife, “I’m not getting a lot out of this.”

He sounded what seemed to be the biggest divide between conservatives and liberals today – the notion that that some people in this country work hard and pay taxes and others don’t work so hard, don’t pay taxes and yet want more and more from the government.

He said those people “need to have skin in the game” before making demands.  He did not say who those people were.

He then said Republicans are afraid of speaking out on issues – “They’re afraid of being called callous SOBs.”  He called them “gun-shy” on healthcare and said the GOP should play defense, not offense.

He then launched into a defense of Columbus Day, saying “his people” were upset.  He said the statue of Columbus in NYC is on 24-hour watch because people want to defile it. 

He claimed to not understand why people where upset with Columbus,

“Hell, he didn’t know if he was in India or Brooklyn.”  Loud cackling laughter behind me.  

“Native Americans got sick and all but’s not like he came here to deliberately kill people.”  More laughter. 

He urged the crowd to “embrace who you are” and “keep loyalty to the team.”
He said liberals were “emotionally constipated.” 

He said that if Jesus had walked on water, the New York Times would say, “Look who got his feet wet.”   A roar of laughter and applause.

I met some pleasant and nice people last night.  I was pleased Donnie the Libertarian recognized nothing was really getting done in Washington, D.C. as did the couple from Tacoma. 

But most of the people in that room seemed really divorced from seeing and understanding what the depth and breath of life experience is for entire populations in this country. 

‘Work hard and you’ll be fine’ seems to be their mantra and, if you’re not, you did something wrong and don’t expect a handout from this government. 


Anonymous said...

Mercedes Schneider has a piece on Betsy DeVos here =>

Yohuru Williams on Betsy DeVos

-- Dan Dempsey

Melissa Westbrook said...

It was a weird thing that DeVos didn't mention teachers, testing, poverty, high-need students - nothing, just "choice."

Joe Wolf said...

Meliissa - thank you for your presence anc the detailed debrief. Very much appreciated.

alex said...

Thanks for the play by play, Melissa. Wow. So much to digest...speaking of which, glad you ultimately got to eat.

This is stunning:

"He sounded what seemed to be the biggest divide between conservatives and liberals today – the notion that that some people in this country work hard and pay taxes and others don’t work so hard, don’t pay taxes and yet want more and more from the government."

Liberals need to debunk this b.s. over & over again. This is the same as Romney's 47% comment & that other Republican/Paul Ryan crap about "the makers and the takers." Data show that blue states consistently generate more tax revenue for the federal government than red states. Blue states subsidize red states that take more in terms of dollars received from the federal government vs. dollars paid out in taxes.

See this from a NYT 2016 opinion piece:

"The states that rank at the top of this list are the ones that are paying the highest proportion of the country’s bills while ranking lowest in terms of voting power in the Electoral College. New Jersey, Minnesota, Illinois, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin, Michigan, Connecticut, California, Washington and Oregon. Those states make up the overwhelming majority of Hillary Clinton’s Electoral College support in 2016. They are also paying billions of dollars of taxes and receiving only a fraction back in benefits and other federal spending."

I am not trying to further stoke the fires of the blue state/red state divide, but the notion that liberals don't work hard & pay their share of taxes is so offensive, and patently false that it needs to be debunked every single time that false flag is raised.

Anonymous said...

It's Brussels sprouts - like the city. Not Brussel sprouts.

School marm

Melissa Westbrook said...

School Marm, tell that to WPC - that's how they had it in the program.

NO 1240 said...

Dear Ms. DeVos,

Washington state's charter school law remains in the court system.

Anonymous said...

New research says schools don’t matter much in helping kids climb the economic ladder

"If there’s one thing that unifies a riven country, it’s the shining promise of education. Democrats, Republicans and education reformers of all stripes are all invested in the belief that schools are the “great equalizer.” But new research out of the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that we’re overselling our belief in schools. That belief, in fact, might barely be a hope."

"The study’s author, Jesse Rothstein, and his colleagues at Berkeley found that the quality of K-12 schooling has little bearing on individuals’ ability to earn more than their parents. Rothstein’s research addresses commonly held assumptions about social mobility. The study found that family structure (spousal earnings), access to a college education and the ability to parlay that education into a bigger paycheck play much larger roles."

So this situation where liberals and conservatives babble on about who makes what and who pays what and what fraction is returned.... is a big diversion away from educating students.

Is it all centered on vendor profits and return on investment or is it about learning or is it about lifetime earnings? ....

-- Dan Dempsey

Anonymous said...

The point of education is producing productive citizens. Period. Tests like your favorite, NAEP, are likely largely irrelevant to that end goal.A better measure of "school outcome" should be a 5 or 10 year follow up measuring productive citizenship. Most importantly that would measure income, rates of employment, living situations, civic engagement rates like participation in further schooling, Americorps, military service, charitable contributions, and incarceration rates. Aren't those the things we all really care about? Improving our education means improving these citizenship outcomes. Really, does SBAC or MSP mean anything to the long run outcomes of students? We've already noticed that they do nothing except measure family income. Do AP classes improve income?. Does every college degree translate into improved citizenship? Are there other avenues to citizenship? Does special education provide students with any employability at all? Dan has promoted the notion of testing as proof of his ideological back to basics education. But really. The one thing most people care about, if you had to pick just 1, would be employment and income. Let's focus on income as an educational outcome. We can't answer these questions without measuring it.


Anonymous said...

Very entertaining synopsis.