What Has Betsy DeVos Actually Done After Nearly Six Months in Office?

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When U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos came into office, many in the education community were terrified the billionaire school choice advocate would quickly use her new perch to privatize education and run roughshod over traditional public schools.

Maybe they shouldn’t have been quite so worried. Nearly six months into her new job, a politically hamstrung DeVos is having a tough time getting her agenda off the ground.

• Key Republicans in Congress have already dealt a big blow to her signature school choice ambitions by giving them the cold shoulder in the budget process.

• She’s way behind in staffing up the Education Department, including top positions.

• State chiefs and local superintendents complain about mixed messages coming from her department on just how free they are to set their own course on policy.

• One of her closest allies on Capitol Hill has taken a key member of her team to task over implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, arguably the most important K-12 item on the department’s plate.

• Protestors continue to dog her public appearances, making it harder for her to take advantage of one of the most important tools in her arsenal: the bully pulpit.

And DeVos, who was approved by the Senate after a bruising confirmation process, remains a polarizing figure far beyond the Beltway.

Some local school leaders continue to question DeVos’ qualifications for her job, given that she’s never worked in a public school and never sent her children to one.

John Skretta, the superintendent of the 2,400-student Norris School District in Firth, Neb., doesn’t detect in DeVos “a desire to learn and grow an understanding of public education,” including in rural districts, like his. What’s more, he said, district leaders don’t have a clear idea of what’s going on at the agency that’s supposed to provide them with funding and guidance.

“The opacity of the DeVos era and the Department of Education is troubling,” Skretta said. The lack of communication fuels educators’ worst fears about the secretary’s agenda, he said.

But Arizona state Sen. Debbie Lesko, a Republican who has championed private school choice legislation, said DeVos’ critics are uncomfortable that she wants to shake up the K-12 landscape and give more power to parents and students.

“It would be easier to go along with the status quo, but the status quo isn’t always working,” said Lesko, adding that it’s far too early to judge DeVos’ effectiveness. “Give her a chance, she’s only been in there a few months.”

School Choice Snub

On the campaign trail, President Donald Trump made just one big education pitch: a $20 billion federal voucher program. In DeVos, a GOP donor who has dedicated decades of her life and millions of dollars of her family’s fortune to advance school choice, he picked an education secretary who seemed ready to run with that goal.

But DeVos is having trouble getting momentum for even a limited choice initiative, including among members of her own party.

Earlier this month, the House panel charged with overseeing education funding snubbed DeVos’ most important asks so far: using an education research program to push school vouchers, and allowing Title I dollars to follow students to the school of their choice.

The education secretary is undaunted, pointing out that the Senate has yet to craft its spending bills. “We’re committed to working with the Congress on these budget items and issues, so it’s an ongoing process,” she said at a recent press conference.

But DeVos may not have better luck on the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the education chairman said.

“Not all Republicans support federal dollars for vouchers,” Alexander said. “I think school choice advocates, and I’m one of them, have made a lot more progress state-by-state and community-by-community than in Washington. I think it’s more difficult here.”

The Trump administration has also hinted that it will pitch a federal tax credit scholarship, which would allow individuals and corporations to get a tax break for donating to scholarship-granting organizations. But that plan, which could be attached to a broader effort at overhauling the tax code, has yet to be rolled out. And time is running short to get it over the finish line this year.

“They’re losing their window to get this done,” said John Bailey, who worked on education policy in the White House during President George W. Bush’s tenure. “We don’t have all the details we need.”

Sluggish Hiring

One potential stumbling block to getting a tax credit initiative off the runway: There aren’t yet enough top-level political appointees at the agency to think through the policy and sell it on Capitol Hill.

DeVos remains the only official at the department who has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate. So far, the White House has nominated just two people to fill key subcabinet slots: Carlos Muñiz, who worked for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, as general counsel; and Peter Oppenheim, a former Alexander aide, to head up congressional affairs. Jim Blew, who advised on education programs at the school choice-friendly Walton Foundation for a time, is expected to be tapped as assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy analysis.

But beyond that, the department has had bad luck with recruitment. Allan Hubbard, an economic adviser in President George W. Bush’s administration who was slated to serve as deputy secretary, dropped out because it would have been a financial burden to comply with ethics considerations. And Republicans in Congress nixed DeVos’ top pick for assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, former New Mexico schools chief Hanna Skandera, because of her championship of the Common Core State Standards.

The thin ranks at the department have implications far beyond the Beltway.

“I think it’s a huge issue for states,” said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “We would be supportive of them getting staffed up.”

Jason Botel, the acting assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education is “working very hard, but he’s only one person. We need more confirmed positions over there,” Minnich said.

That may be easier said than done. GOP education experts with experience at the state and federal level say privately they simply don’t want to put in long hours for a controversial secretary who doesn’t seem to have much of an agenda beyond pushing school choice.

However, Robert Behning, the House education chairman in Indiana, who has known DeVos for years and received campaign donations from organizations she’s helped to finance, said he doesn’t think the slow hiring can be laid at her feet, since it’s the White House’s responsibility to staff agencies.

“Trump was a nontraditional candidate, and I don’t think he had the advance team to be ready to govern the day that they were sworn in,” Behning said. “Part of people’s criticism of her is not related as much to her as it is to the administration.”

For now, as a stop-gap measure, a lot of roles are being filled in an “acting” capacity, without official Senate sign off. And that comes with its own set of problems.

Candice Jackson, the acting assistant secretary for the civil rights, has become a political lightning rod, thanks in part to comments to the New York Times in which she claimed that 90 percent of college sexual assault cases involve alcohol and breakups. Jackson quickly apologized, but Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., top Democrat on the education committee, still called for her resignation.

Even before that gaffe, Jackson raised red flags for some in the civil rights community when she decided to stop investigating individual complaints for evidence of systemic discrimination. The department has said this will result in getting more complaints resolved at a faster clip. But civil rights advocates worry investigators may miss the bigger picture.

ESSA Pushback

Another temporary political aide, Botel, is getting grief for what some see as a heavy-handed approach to ESSA implementation.

DeVos spent her first three months hitting hard on the theme of local control. Most state officials thought getting their ESSA plans approved by the Education Department would be a cinch. But in the first round of feedback letters, DeVos’ team told states that their goals for student achievement weren’t ambitious enough. And the department questioned whether states could use Advanced Placement tests and dual enrollment to figure out whether students are ready for college and the workforce. Those letters generated swift pushback from Minnich of the CCSSO, and others.

DeVos and company doubled back, saying states don’t have to change their plans based on the feedback. But now, state officials say they’re confused about what to expect from the Trump team when it comes to the new law.

Brian J. Whiston, the state superintendent in Michigan, said the secretary has been all about state flexibility, telling chiefs in a closed meeting that “even if you don’t know all your answers in terms of your plan, file it anyway,” Whiston said. Michigan submitted a plan that left some things still to-be-determined, and got a critical call from Botel.

“We did what the secretary told us to do, and now we seem to be getting beat up,” Whiston said.

What’s more, the back-and-forth may have strained the DeVos team’s relationship with a key set of allies: congressional Republicans. Alexander, an ESSA architect who helped shepherd DeVos through to confirmation, said Botel hasn’t “read ESSA carefully.”

“We tried to liberate [states] with this new law, and now we have language coming out from the Department of Education that suggests they better slow down because the department is going to start telling them what to do again, playing ‘Mother may I?’” Alexander said. “I want to nip in the bud the idea that somehow it’s business as usual in Washington.”

DeVos has arguably been able to do more—and get more Republicans on board with her agenda—on higher education. For example, she and her team have been slowly scaling back, pausing, or moving to overhaul Obama-era student financial aid regulations.

But the department has a lot more power over higher education than it does over K-12, thanks in part to ESSA, which sought to crack down on the secretary’s role. And DeVos’ top staffer on the issue, Jim Manning, the acting undersecretary, has deep experience in Washington higher education circles.

Spotty Messaging

DeVos also has struggled to take advantage of the visibility of her position.

After a divisive confirmation process, in which she was painted as an enemy of public education, DeVos sought to quell her critics by visiting a traditional public school in downtown Washington. But protestors tried to block her from entrance.

She also faced angry demonstrators at a school in Bethesda, Md., an affluent Washington suburb, and during a visit to rural Van Wert, Ohio, with one of her loudest critics, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

And after she made a statement that called historically black colleges “pioneers” of school choice, ignoring their Jim Crow roots, students at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida turned their back on her during a commencement speech,

DeVos is now guarded by federal marshals, a switch from past security arrangements. And her staff often doesn’t put appearances on her schedule until the last minute to thwart potential protestors.

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That may be part of the reason DeVos seems to prefer friendly venues—like a recent gathering in Denver of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council. And many of her school visits have highlighted private school vouchers or charter schools. But such a strategy may not help her cause in the long run.

“I think she’s talked a lot to the choir,” said Christopher Cross, who served as an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education during President George H.W. Bush’s tenure, and now runs an education consulting firm. “I think there’s a whole congregation out there that she has not reached.” If DeVos reaches out to people who aren’t obviously in her corner she may “take some slings and arrows, but she could get people on board.”

But Behning, the long-time DeVos acquaintance, said it’s hardly unusual for a cabinet official to talk to groups that share an administration’s agenda. “Arne Duncan never spoke at ALEC,” he said, referring to President Barack Obama’s longest-serving education secretary. He notes that DeVos will likely visit more districts in coming months.

And, Cross said, there’s still time for DeVos to right the ship when it comes to her K-12 agenda.

“There could be a reset button here,” he said. “But it’s going to take some thoughtful strategy to do that, and she’s got to get some people ... who she listens to who are not the usual suspects from her viewpoint.”

Vol. 37, Issue 01, Pages 1, 25

Published in Print: August 23, 2017, as Betsy DeVos Stalls as Tenure Hits Six-Month Mark
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