DeVos' Challenge: Tuning Her Message as New Education Secretary

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, now in her second month at the helm of the Education Department, is still settling into her role of representing the agency in the public eye.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, now in her second month at the helm of the Education Department, is still settling into her role of representing the agency in the public eye.
—Molly Riley/AP
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Few, if any, education secretaries have gotten off to as rocky a start as Betsy DeVos, who took the helm of the U.S. Department of Education last month with opponents ready to pounce.

There was her contentious confirmation hearing, with its much-mocked comment about guns in schools to defend against grizzly bears. Protesters temporarily blocked her first visit to a public school, and a series of perceived gaffes in interviews and speeches drew online outrage and scolding editorials—as well as some off-base criticism.

DeVos in recent weeks did make a number of drama-free appearances to groups around Washington such as the Council of the Great City Schools and the National Lieutenant Governors Association. And she tagged along with President Donald Trump on a visit to a Roman Catholic school in Florida to highlight the administration's school choice priority.

Finding Her Way

DeVos' press office declined a request for comment in time for deadline last week.

But her rough start on the communications front raises the question of what's next for a neophyte federal official as she aims to get her points across to the public, while sorting out the policy details of a cabinet agency.

DeVos Isn't Alone

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos drew heat for some of her comments during her first weeks in office, but she is hardly the only person to hold the office who has made controversial or regrettable remarks.

See gaffes from past education secretaries.

Former officials and public relations professionals with experience in the Education Department say DeVos needs to surround herself with savvy political and communications aides, refine her message, and take it directly to constituencies that may not initially be on her side.

"For Republicans, the blob [of established education groups] is not the friendliest territory," said Margaret Spellings, a former education secretary under President George W. Bush and now the president of the University of North Carolina system.

She recalled in an interview that even though she had worked for years for the Texas Association of School Boards before joining Bush when he was governor of Texas and then in the White House, she got "quite a chilly reception" from the National School Boards Association. And she said DeVos shouldn't shy away from addressing such likely skeptical audiences as the teachers' unions.

Spellings also said that given DeVos' lack of experience in public office and relatively limited background in the public arena—DeVos is a longtime GOP political donor in Michigan and philanthropist focused on school choice issues—"I think she would be well-advised to get about the country and really go talk to people. Go into flyover country."

"I think she can learn the most by getting out into the states," Spellings said.

The point about messaging is echoed by Peter Cunningham, a former assistant secretary for communications and outreach under Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in President Barack Obama's administration.

"I think the important thing is for her to figure out the landscape and the audience she is addressing," said Cunningham. "Is it parents, unions, civil rights groups, Capitol Hill? The sweet spot is how to figure out how to talk about her agenda."

Public Relations Blowback

No question that DeVos experienced some fierce public relations blowback in her first few weeks in office.

One example: the reaction to her comments in an interview with a conservative columnist after her protester-marred visit to Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington, where she initially retreated to her large government SUV. DeVos later said teachers at the school seemed to be in "receive mode" and are "waiting to be told what they have to do, and that's not going to bring success to an individual child."

The comment was not well-received by teachers or the secretary's critics. DeVos took to Twitter to emphasize she was urging more empowerment for teachers, tweeting, "Your teachers are awesome! They deserve MORE freedom to innovate and help students."

On Feb. 27, DeVos called the nation's historically black colleges and universities "real pioneers of school choice," setting off a firestorm over her perceived lack of understanding of the roots of such institutions in state-mandated segregation. The New York Times editorial page called the remark "a positively Orwellian explanation." In later remarks to HBCU leaders, DeVos acknowledged the history of segregation that "failed to provide African-Americans access to a quality education" and the role of black institutions in "providing an alternative option to students denied the right to attend a quality school."

There have been other comments and missteps that—fairly or not—marred DeVos' early weeks. An Education Department posting on Twitter last month misspelled the name of civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois. And even an offhand remark by DeVos using the expression "no such thing as a free lunch" prompted mistaken claims that she was suggesting cuts to the National School Lunch Program—something her department doesn't even run.

DeVos is hardly the only secretary of education to have made notable verbal gaffes. Duncan, for example, sparked outrage for comments suggesting that Hurricane Katrina was a blessing in disguise for sparking an overhaul of New Orleans' troubled school system, and that "white, suburban moms" who were put out over more-rigorous expectations for their children were a force in the opposition to the Common Core State Standards.

And DeVos is not the only one to stumble among Trump's cabinet: Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, himself an African-American, recently referred to slaves as among the "other immigrants" who came to America with dreams for their descendants.

"We all make mistakes," said Cunningham, who is now the executive director of Education Post, a Chicago-based website focused on school policy. "Arne made mistakes. That's a big part of the job."

Clear Signaling

Going forward, Emily Lampkin, a former political and communications aide to Spellings, said that DeVos should set a clear public platform of her goals and a communications strategy and agenda to work toward those goals.

"The more that people see that she is driven by a positive agenda, the better off she is going to be," said Lampkin, now a principal at the Washington public-affairs firm the Lampkin Group.

Spellings stressed the importance of support staff.

"The first thing you do is get yourself some good help," said Spellings, who was secretary during Bush's second term. "You're nothing without your team, especially given how complicated the job is."

Thomas Toch, the director of the new Future-Ed think tank at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy, agreed with others that DeVos needs to ramp up her communications help and refine her message.

"Her speeches are substantively thin and wooden in tone," said Toch, a former education reporter at Education Week and U.S. News & World Report who has had a breadth of other communications and policy experience in the field. "I would say her problem is a function of filtering every topic through a simplified commitment to markets and local control."

Citing interviews DeVos has given to a handful of conservative radio-talk-show hosts, Toch said the secretary needs "to engage more broadly."

"She needs to make the case for her agenda not just to conservative radio hosts," he said. "They may be a safe interview, but they're not going to broaden support for her ideas."

And part of the challenge simply may be the learning curve for someone new to cabinet-level publicity.

Toch said that one of the most impressionable moments from DeVos' first weeks in office was the protest scene outside Jefferson Middle School Academy.

"The scene of her running away from a few protesters at a D.C. public school was telling," he said. "A good politician would have engaged with the group, extending a hand, or trying to charm and disarm them. Instead, DeVos hustled into a black government car with tinted windows."

Making the Rounds

In more recent appearances, the new secretary has avoided further missteps. She was largely in Trump's shadow during her March 3 visit to St. Andrew Catholic School near Orlando, Fla. On March 13, members of the Council of the Great City Schools gave DeVos a polite but subdued reaction as she discussed new regulations under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Related Blog

On March 15, DeVos got a more enthusiastic reception—a standing ovation—from the GOP-dominated National Lieutenant Governors Association at a Washington hotel.

"Federalism isn't an antiquated idea," DeVos told the group. "Our nation's founders reserved most powers, including education, for the states to exercise because they knew all too well that a distant central government cannot adequately address the needs of its people."

It was a noncontroversial, 12-minute speech to an especially low-key group. And after a few minutes of glad-handing with the state officials, DeVos was on to her next appointment.

Vol. 36, Issue 25, Pages 16, 18

Published in Print: March 22, 2017, as Tuning Up the Message No Easy Lift as Ed. Secretary Settles In
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