Tennessee’s former education commissioner called on Betsy DeVos to resign as the nation’s education chief Thursday because of her boss’s ambivalent response to racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Kevin Huffman, who led the Tennessee Department of Education from 2011 to 2014, said President Donald Trump’s comments have undercut the secretary’s ability to work on behalf of public school students, many of whom are students of color.
He fired off a morning tweet storm urging her to “please resign your office” over Trump’s statements blaming both white nationalists and counter-protesters for weekend violence that left one protester dead.
Other education leaders have denounced Trump for walking back his denunciation of racist groups that are part of his political base. But Huffman’s comments were unique in insisting that they equally implicate DeVos.
It was the first time since last October that Huffman had tweeted — and he let loose a string of messages that he said later was aimed at holding Trump and his administration accountable. While many top executives have left Trump’s jobs advisory councils over the president’s comments, none of his cabinet members have resigned for that reason.
“There have been a lot of generic calls on people in the administration to resign, but it’s too easy for everyone to duck responsibility,” said Huffman, now an education consultant and writer living in Nashville. “I think it’s appropriate for people to call out specific people in our own field.”
He said the education secretary’s main responsibility is to uphold civil rights in schools — and Trump’s comments mean “she has lost the moral authority to do her job.”
“I can’t imagine Secretary DeVos walking into a room of educators and explaining that your civil rights agenda is to advance all kids, particularly children of color. How would you have the moral authority to have that conversation, given the things your boss has said, particularly when you’re unwilling to call out your boss?” he said.
DeVos posted several tweets over the weekend criticizing the “behavior and the violence and hate-filled rhetoric displayed” in Charlottesville.
But many education leaders called her response inadequate and unspecific, and urged her to take advantage of a teachable moment to call out bigotry.
On Thursday, DeVos went further in a letter to her staff.
“While we should be anticipating and celebrating students’ returns to campuses across the country, we are engaged in a national discussion that has stirred ugly, hate-filled conversations and reopened hurtful wounds from shameful portions of our nation’s past,” she wrote, calling the events in Charlottesville “tragic and unthinkable.”
“The view of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other racist bigots are totally abhorrent to the American ideal.”
Huffman led Tennessee’s Department of Education under Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, and during the administration of President Barack Obama, a Democrat. He was instrumental in the state’s overhaul of K-12 education spurred by the $500 million federal Race to the Top award received from the Obama administration and its first education chief, Arne Duncan.
Huffman, who said he has met but does not know DeVos, added that people he respects believe that her policy agenda is “driven by a deep desire to expand educational opportunities for all kids, including and especially low-income kids.”