A year ago, as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos squeaked through a historically tough confirmation process, a lot was made of the fact that she was the first education secretary who hadn’t worked professionally in a school or college.
So one year in, has that been an asset or a liability?
“I frankly think it’s been an asset. I don’t know what can’t be done,” DeVos told reporters last week. “And I come in with fresh eyes around all of these issues, and I think that questioning the way things have been done and being able to look at things from a different perspective is a good thing.”
Does she think she was more influential in pushing her favorite policy—school choice—as an outsider running the American Federation for Children, an advocacy organization, or in her current role, heading up the Education Department?
DeVos indicated that she recognizes that, as secretary, she’s part of a broader political system that includes Congress. And folks on Capitol Hill don’t always do everything she’d ideally like them to do.
“Clearly, if I could snap my fingers and things would happen with that body up there, there’s lots of things that I would tell them to do,” she said. “Not only around choice. Lots of things. But ... there hasn’t been a secretary that has talked about empowering parents and giving them choices before, and I think that’s a huge benefit and, frankly, a privilege to do. To try to be a voice for many parents who don’t have voices.”
To be sure, other secretaries have also talked about alternatives to traditional public schooling. Arne Duncan was a fan of charters, and Margaret Spellings championed tutoring and public school choice.
The current secretary believes that most of the action on choice won’t take place in Washington, anyway.
“The bulk of that is going to happen in state legislatures and [with] governors across this country,” she said. “And whatever is going to happen at the federal level is going to be complementary to and additional to what happens at the state level.”
DeVos’ biggest irritation? She’s not too happy that the Senate has been slow to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominees for key positions at her department.
“It really has been going on much too long. [There’s] a very, very high level of frustration around that,” she said. “We have many qualified, capable individuals waiting to come and contribute here, and they’re just messing around at that building on the Hill.”
Approvals have yet to occur for Mick Zais, the president’s pick for deputy secretary; Jim Blew, who is up for assistant secretary of planning, evaluation, and policy analysis; Ken Marcus, the nominee for assistant secretary of the office for civil rights; Frank Brogan, the nominee for assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education; and Carlos Muñiz, the nominee for general counsel.
Sluggish confirmation of political appointees is not unique to the Trump era. By the end of the Obama administration, an “acting” aide filled nearly every core role at the department because a Republican-controlled Congress was dragging its feet on approving nominations.
And back in 2007, it took about eight months for Bill Evers, President George W. Bush’s nominee for assistant secretary of planning, evaluation, and policy analysis, to get the green light from a Democratically-controlled Congress.
By contrast, Jim Blew, Trump’s nominee for that same position, has been waiting about four months to get the all-clear. Nominations for Zais, Marcus, and Brogan have been pending a bit less than that. Muñiz has had the longest wait, at more than 10 months.
DeVos said she’s proud of the work she’s done on deregulation. The secretary scrapped more than a hundred pieces of guidance that she said were outdated or duplicative.
“Some of the most important work we’ve done in this first year has been around the area of overreach and rolling back the extended footprint of this department to a significant extent,” she said.
But DeVos wasn’t ready to provide an update on whether she’d be eliminating Obama-era guidance pushing school officials to ensure that their discipline policies don’t have a disparate impact on students from certain racial and ethnic groups.
Nor did she get into specifics on the state of play when it comes to another regulatory issue on her plate. DeVos is contemplating delaying for two years an Obama-era rule that would require states to use a standardized approach to figuring out if they have too many minority students in special education, or if they’re punishing them or putting them in restrictive settings more than white students.
“The re-examination of those two regulations is really high up on our work list, and we are certainly looking very closely at both of those. We’ve had a lot of feedback from states and those involved in these issues on the front lines to raise concerns over the implementation as originally intended,” DeVos said. “I think key in all of this is to stay focused on the fact that every student is an individual. That has ultimately been my approach to all of these things.”
The Every Student Succeeds Act‘s Democratic architects—Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia—have argued that DeVos is rubber-stamping state ESSA plans, even if they flout the law. And they’ve said she’s allowing states to water down protections for vulnerable student groups, such as English-language learners and students in special education.
DeVos is supposed to meet with both of them soon, as well as the two Republican education committee chairpeople, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina.
The secretary contends, though, that she’s not letting states slide.
“I’ve said frequently, and I’ll say it again, I’m only approving plans that comport with the law. And I’m encouraging anyone who’s been critical of me and/or the department on approval of plans, that they in some way don’t follow the law, I want to know where that’s falling short and where is that exactly the case. And I haven’t really had any specific examples brought to our attention yet.”
Back in September, DeVos went on a seven-state tour to highlight schools she said are thinking outside the box. Since then, she has been giving speeches encouraging educators to reconsider everything from seat time to how learning is delivered. So can any big policy initiatives be expected to help schools do this rethinking?
She sees ESSA as one lever.
“I think one of the most important things we can do is really encourage—with the implementation of ESSA state plans—states to actually push a lot of flexibility and autonomy down to the local level, for states to foster the kind of creativity and innovation we really need to see when it comes to changing the way we help kids learn,” DeVos said.
Trump may have pitched a $20 billion voucher program on the campaign trail. But so far, school choice hasn’t caught fire in Congress. Lawmakers rejected the president’s proposal for a federal voucher program and for allowing some federal money to follow students to the public school of their choice.
DeVos didn’t tip her hand on her next big choice ask.
But she called a change in the recent tax-overhaul legislation to allow parents to use 529 college-savings plans for K-12 tuition a “very, very significant opportunity and step forward for empowering parents with choices.”
She also pointed to the renewal of the voucher program in the District of Columbia as another “big win. ... We’re going to be pushing on multiple fronts to empower parents.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2018 edition of Education Week as At Year One, DeVos Views Her Outsider Status as an ‘Asset’