Every Student Succeeds Act

Betsy DeVos: A One-Year Progress Report

By Alyson Klein — February 06, 2018 9 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos faced a steep learning curve and the aftershocks of a fierce confirmation battle when she took the helm of the Education Department last February.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos took the oath of office on Feb. 7, 2017, which means that this week marks her first anniversary as the head of the Department of Education. Her first year in office has been a bumpy ride.

DeVos had decades of experience championing school choice before joining the Trump Cabinet. She’d been the head of the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy and political organization, but she had no experience working professionally in government, or in public education.

Her confirmation hearing—in which she appeared not to know what the main special education law was and suggested teachers may need guns to ward off “potential” grizzly bears—was the most controversial of any education secretary in history.

Thousands of calls poured in to key senators, urging votes against her. Educators and activists staged demonstrations across the country. Ultimately, two GOP lawmakers joined all the Democrats in voting against her, a 50-50 split. Vice President Mike Pence had to break the tie to confirm her.

A year later, many teachers remain unimpressed.

“She’s done nothing to disprove my belief that she is the least-qualified Cabinet officer in recent American history,” said Nathan Bowling, who teaches Advanced Placement social studies courses at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Wash.

“There was a lot of momentum around closing the achievement gap that has been abandoned by the federal government,” added Bowling, who was a Washington state teacher of the year in 2016. “Frankly, the department seems adrift to me. At no point in my 12-year career has the department been less relevant to what I’m doing.”

But Laurie Villani, a kindergarten teacher in Virginia’s Prince William County, has been heartened by DeVos’ rhetoric on school choice, career and technical education, and personalized learning.

She agrees with DeVos on “the whole idea that one size doesn’t fit all and it’s very hard to change the classroom so that all children are comfortable” learning. “She’s been able to open the door to people talking about it and thinking about it and that’s the first step.”

DeVos said in a recent wide-ranging interview that she’s been unfairly pigeonholed as favoring only charter and private schools. She is in favor, she said, of public schools too.

And she thinks her status as an outsider—she’s the first secretary never to have worked professionally at a public school or college—has been an asset.

“I frankly think it’s been an asset. I don’t know what can’t be done,” DeVos told reporters. “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.”

Here’s a closer look at DeVos’ record on a variety of fronts:

Choice

School choice fans saw DeVos’ appointment as the best opportunity for a big federal voucher initiative in decades. But some educators were terrified that she would seek to “privatize” K-12 schools.

DeVos and her team have made only modest progress on school choice during their first year in office. Their one victory: language in the new GOP tax-overhaul legislation allowing families to use 529 college-savings plans for K-12 private school tuition.

In a recent interview, DeVos called the change, a “very, very significant opportunity and step forward for empowering parents with choices. It will obviously need some time to get it implemented in all of the states to an extent that we’re going to really see the impact of it. But this was a big win.”

She has said the administration would continue to push for policies that would expand more schooling options for needy families.

But so far, the GOP-controlled Congress doesn’t seem enthusiastic. Lawmakers rejected Trump’s pitch for a federal voucher program and for allowing some federal money to follow students to the public school of their choice. And prospects aren’t likely to be any brighter for those initiatives ahead of what’s expected to be a tough midterm election for Republicans.

Every Student Succeeds Act

DeVos’ biggest impact on the direction of ESSA implementation may have come in the first few weeks of her tenure, when she supported Congress’ choice to scrap the Obama administration’s accountability regulations for the law. Since then, the Trump administration has been reluctant to issue new ESSA guidance, leading to confusion in states, critics say.

The secretary and her team have also weathered criticism for the way they have approached ESSA plan approval.

At first, Republicans, including DeVos ally Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, worried that the department was being too prescriptive with states. Alexander even said that Jason Botel, an acting assistant secretary, hadn’t read the law carefully.

Since Alexander’s statement, DeVos and her team have approved ESSA plans for 33 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. In some cases, they greenlighted state plans even if the states didn’t make changes the department explicitly asked for.

Now, Democrats and civil rights groups are accusing the department of serving as a rubber stamp, approving plans that flout the law’s protections for vulnerable groups of children, such as English-language learners and students in special education.

DeVos rejects that accusation.

“I’ve said frequently, and I’ll say it again, I’m only approving plans that comport with the law,” DeVos said. “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’s 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.”

Bully Pulpit

DeVos entered office as one of Trump’s most polarizing Cabinet picks—and months after her confirmation, she remained even less popular among educators than her boss, according to an October survey of 1,122 educators by the Education Week Research Center. Overall, 67 percent of the educators surveyed had an unfavorable opinion of Trump, but 72 percent said they didn’t like DeVos. For months, protestors have followed her almost everywhere she goes—and at times, their message has drowned out hers.

Still, DeVos has been out on the stump and in schools lately, urging policymakers and educators to “rethink” schools—everything from lesson delivery to seat time to facilities. She’s visited at least three dozen schools, a mix that’s included private, public, and charter.

And she’s highlighted what she sees as outside-the-box approaches to serving particular populations. For instance, on a back-to-school tour last fall, she dropped by a charter school in Indianapolis for students recovering from addiction.

But DeVos hasn’t outlined specific steps the federal government might take to help K-12 schools innovate. Instead, she said she wants to empower districts and states to do this rethinking on their own.

In the past, the Education Department has been a barrier to change, pushing “one-size-fits-all approaches and solutions to things” during the Bush and Obama years, DeVos said. “You cannot fix what ails education by telling people how to do things from the Washington level down. It really has to be a grassroots local initiative.”

She’s also lent a lot of rhetorical support to career and technical education, saying that school districts should encourage students to think beyond the traditional four-year-college degree and consider career certifications, apprenticeship programs, and other possibilities.

Slimming Down the Federal Role

Last year, the Trump administration proposed slashing $9 billion from the Education Department’s nearly $70 billion bottom line and eliminating big programs funding teacher quality and after-school services. It’s unclear if Congress will embrace those cuts.

But the department has taken steps to scale back on its own. DeVos has offered buyouts, early retirement, and other incentives for dozens of federal employees. And she’s scrapped more than a hundred pieces of guidance that she said were outdated or duplicative. The White House hasn’t moved to fill all the subcabinet positions in the department, including the assistant secretaries for innovation and improvement and for communications and outreach.

And the department currently has a task force to comply with an executive order, issued by President Donald Trump in April, that calls for the department to get rid of regulations that step on local control in education.

“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,” DeVos said.

Civil Rights Enforcement

Right after taking office, the Trump administration rescinded guidance put out by President Barack Obama that called for transgender students to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity. And 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.

“This department’s role in ensuring students’ civil rights and ensuring the rights under the [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act], those are important roles,” DeVos said. “It’s hurtful to me when I’m criticized for not upholding the rights of students. For not caring about students with special needs. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

DeVos has also met with both supporters and critics of Obama-era guidance that pushed school officials to ensure that their discipline policies don’t have a disparate impact on students from certain racial and ethnic groups.

Her team also made changes to the way civil rights cases are reviewed. The department is no longer automatically checking complaints for evidence of systemic discrimination, a practice established during the Obama years.

Higher Education

This is where most of the action has occurred. DeVos and her team are in the early stages of rewriting two sets of regulations put out by the Obama administration and intended to protect student borrowers: gainful employment, which was intended to weed out programs that required big tuition payments but offered dim job prospects, and borrower defense, which helps students who took out loans to attend institutions later found to be fraudulent. She also scrapped Obama’s rules governing sexual assault on college campuses and is working on a replacement. (That has some implications for K-12 schools, which sometimes take their cues on how to handle alleged sexual-assault cases from higher education.)

Related Video

A progress report on U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ first six months:

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as DeVos’ Freshman Year at a Glance

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