School & District Management

School District Leaders Weigh How—and Whether—to Engage DeVos

By Denisa R. Superville — February 28, 2017 4 min read
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As Betsy DeVos embarks on her role as the nation’s highest-profile education official, some K-12 leaders are trying to figure out how to engage with a new U.S. education secretary who’s an ardent proponent of school choice and who many believe holds a dim view of traditional public schools.

Should they invite DeVos to visit their districts, meet with educators, and see classrooms? Or take a more antagonistic stance to ward off potential policies that some see as a threat to traditional public schools?

Since DeVos squeaked through a tumultuous confirmation process, her debut has hit some potholes. A small group of protesters blocked her from entering a middle school in the District of Columbia, temporarily disrupting her first official visit as secretary to a traditional public school. Days later, teachers at the same school lashed out at DeVos for remarks she made in an interview suggesting they were waiting to be told what to do.

But to some K-12 leaders, keeping doors open to DeVos is essential to counter negative views she may hold on public education.

“I think that’s really important—that she gets into as many public schools as possible and exposed to the really good things that are happening,” said Thomas Gentzel, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, which stayed out of the partisan fight over DeVos’ confirmation and whose staff has been in touch with the Trump administration on issues such as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“Obviously there are reasons to be wary, given her focus and her background on choice issues,” he said. “But wariness is one thing. Wariness shouldn’t automatically translate into an unwillingness to work together.”

Wait-and-See Approach

A detailed K-12 agenda has yet to emerge from the Trump administration, and many district leaders are taking a wait-and-see approach. But Michael Dunn, the superintendent of NorthEast Washington Educational Services District 101, which covers 59 districts in Washington state, wasted no time. Shortly after DeVos’ confirmation, Dunn wrote to ask her to visit.

After listening to the confirmation hearing, Dunn said he was concerned that DeVos didn’t have an “overly positive view of public education, and, perhaps, much experience with it.” He said he’s not against choice, but that the vast majority of students attend traditional public schools and need to be supported.

Richard Barrera, the president of the San Diego school board, proposed—and then withdrew after negative reaction—a resolution to invite DeVos on a “fact-finding” mission to see the district’s bright spots.

Barrera said he wanted to show the secretary how the district works with teachers, parents, and the community to improve outcomes for students. The graduation rate has climbed over the past decade to close to 92 percent in 2016, he said, with a 91 percent graduation rate for black students, even as the district raised standards to align with admissions requirements for the University of California system. Dropout rates declined; test scores have gone up, he said.

(While San Diego has touted its high graduation rate, the Voice of San Diego recently reported that one of the reasons the district has been able to trumpet such high numbers is because hundreds of struggling students transferred from traditional high schools to online charter schools.)

But Barrera said he also wanted to challenge what he sees as DeVos’ belief “that the way you improve education for all students is by shifting money out of the public school system and into privatization.”

“I think it’s important to call out an agenda that we think is unproven and dangerous,” he said, adding that the board similarly criticized the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competitive-grant program, which required states and districts to adopt its agenda for school improvement. “But not just to confront that agenda but to offer an alternative, which is a strong public school system rooted in the principles of the community that produces strong outcomes for kids.”

The U.S. Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment on the San Diego resolution or whether the secretary has been invited to visit other districts.

Keeping an Open Mind

Some district leaders argue that keeping an open mind on DeVos is a better strategy for keeping them in the loop to influence policy. One district with a relationship with the secretary is Michigan’s Grand Rapids system, to which her family, particularly Doug DeVos and Maria DeVos, her brother-in-law and sister-in-law, have donated millions.

DeVos and her husband deepened ties with the district around 2012 when it began a major school improvement effort, said John Helmholdt, the district’s spokesman. He credits that initiative for rising graduation rates, new school options, and growing enrollment. DeVos has mentored students in an elementary school and paid for a leadership coach to help Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal.

Weatherall Neal was one of the few superintendents to publicly support DeVos for secretary, which brought pushback, mostly from outside Grand Rapids, Helmholdt said.

Since becoming secretary, DeVos asked about visiting, he said.

“The fact that the secretary of education has asked to dive in a little deeper, I think that shows that she is going to do her homework, and she is going to study those best practices, and she has a trusting relationship with her hometown urban school district,” he said.

But the relationship hasn’t meant that the district always agrees with the Great Lakes Education Project, which was founded by DeVos and her husband, on charter school transparency and accountability, he said.

Dunn, the superintendent in Washington state, recently learned that DeVos couldn’t accept his invitation right now.

“It’s certainly an open invitation,” a disappointed Dunn said. “Anytime she would like to come, we’d be very happy to have her.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2017 edition of Education Week as District Leaders Weigh How—and Whether—to Engage DeVos

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