Late last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gave a high-profile speech at Harvard University on school choice—her number-one policy priority. But afterward, all anyone could seem to talk about were the protestors yelling, “This is what white supremacy looks like!”
The problem for DeVos—arguably the best-known and most controversial secretary in the department’s 30-plus-year history—is that her public appearances also provide a platform for her harshest critics, even months after her rocky confirmation process made her a social-media sensation.
And often, their message drowns out hers. The turmoil that surrounds DeVos challenges her ability to leverage her position as the nation’s top education official and to push an already divisive agenda, including creating a new voucher program and revamping Title IX guidance as it relates to sexual assault.
The protests “don’t bother me,” DeVos said in a recent interview with Education Week. She still sees the bully pulpit as one of her best bets for drawing attention to the schools she thinks are providing the kind of individualized instruction that students need.
Just last month, DeVos took her most high-profile trip yet, swinging through six states to visit private and both traditional and charter public schools that offer students’ unique learning experiences. The tour was a chance to “really highlight and expose to more people the beauty of options and choices and to continue to make the case that all parents, not only ones that have the economic means, should be able to have a decisionmaking power to make some of those choices,” DeVos said in her interview.
But Maria Ferguson, who served as the director of communications and outreach services at the Education Department during the Clinton administration, said the secretary has a long way to go in getting educators to take her seriously.
“She came into office with guns blasting public education. ... I don’t think people forget that,” said Ferguson, who is now the president of the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization that is affiliated with George Washington University. “You earn the bully pulpit, you don’t just get to have it. ... People have to believe you’re there for the right reasons. I don’t think people trust her.”
Still, with DeVos’ school choice agenda stalled on Capitol Hill, her ability to command attention is one of few levers she has left, said Chester E. Finn, who worked at the department under President Ronald Reagan and is now a distinguished senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
“I think a perfectly plausible way to foster choice is to celebrate schools that do it well and encourage states to do more of it,” he said. “But I also don’t think she has very many alternatives right now.”
Public messaging holds a particular allure for GOP education secretaries, who have ideas they want to see take root but aren’t wild about creating a spate of new programs, Finn said. And it can yield results.
Terrel H. Bell, Reagan’s first education secretary, helped launch a national dialogue on the need to improve America’s schools by commissioning the landmark 1983 report “A Nation at Risk.” Lamar Alexander who was President George H.W. Bush’s second education secretary and now leads the Senate education committee, barnstormed the country as secretary, urging districts to sign on to a set of educational goals developed with the nation’s governors.
More recently, President Barack Obama’s second education secretary, John B. King Jr., encouraged states to include college readiness and chronic absenteeism in their accountability plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act—and the vast majority took his advice. And Obama’s first secretary, Arne Duncan, took every opportunity he could to draw attention to the impact of gun violence on children.
In some respects, DeVos may be in an even better position to use her platform as secretary to get attention. After all, she commands more media focus than almost all of her predecessors.
“Everywhere she goes, she gets coverage,” said Matt Frendewey, who worked on communications for DeVos at both the Education Department and at the American Federation for Children, the school choice advocacy organization she chaired before becoming secretary. “Every time she raises a point, it’s discussed and debated.” That’s helped open up a conversation on school choice, he said.
But he acknowledged the secretary is fighting a polarized climate.
“The dynamic is no longer about civil debate,” he said. “It manifests itself in this ‘resist’ mentality. As in, ‘I’m not going to debate why a policy is good or bad, I’m going to resist it.’ ”
To be sure, some of DeVos’ early stumbles haven’t helped matters. After her first visit to a public school in the District of Columbia, for example, she said the teachers there were in “receive mode,” prompting an angry response on Twitter. And she put out a statement saying that historically black colleges and universities were “pioneers” of choice, ignoring their Jim Crow roots.
Other comments—like appearing to compare public schools to old-fashioned taxis and schools of choice to Uber—have continued to rub people the wrong way.
At least initially, DeVos, “tended to focus more negative than positive messages,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who served as the director of the Institute of Education Sciences during the George W. Bush administration. “I think she’d be well advised to catch the system when it’s being good and draw attention to it.” And he suggested she keep showing up. “She needs to be out and about so people get tired of protesting her.”
At the same time, DeVos has to contend with a level of vitriol that no other education secretary has encountered—and it isn’t just confined to her public appearances.
A sampling of comments on DeVos’ Instagram feed, responding to a picture of a sunset over a high school football field: “Evil wench I hope you burn in hell"; “You are a vile human being and should be ashamed"; “Everyone hates you go away!” “You are a cancer to our educational institutions"; “You are repugnant and a disgrace.”
That kind of bile makes DeVos “look sympathetic” by comparison, said Mark Hlavacik, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of North Texas in Denton and the author of Assigning Blame: The Rhetoric of Education Reform.
But he added that DeVos’ critics didn’t exactly invent trolling someone online—and her boss, President Donald Trump, has elevated it to an art form. “The administration she works for has authorized this kind of discourse,” Hlavacik said, even though he doesn’t think that absolves DeVos’ most antagonistic detractors.
Some have wondered if sexism is at play in the response to DeVos. After all, Trump’s male cabinet members don’t seem to be the target of as many personal attacks.
Hlavacik agrees, but thinks that’s not the whole story.
“Is there sexism? Yes,” he said. “It’s also the same sexism that made it OK [for Trump] to call [Democratic presidential contender] Hillary Clinton a ‘nasty woman’ and still get elected.” And DeVos has advantages that many people do not, he added. “That DeVos is a target of sexism doesn’t wipe away the other privileges she’s had that are part of how she became secretary of education,” Hlavacik said. “Most people aren’t as wealthy as she is. She is a white woman. That matters.”
Schools that host DeVos sometimes feel the need to do their own politicking ahead of the secretary’s visit.
Kory Gallagher, the head of school at Kansas City Academy, a small private school in Missouri that DeVos stopped by on her recent tour, said there was a “small but vocal minority who felt the offer to visit should be rescinded.”
The school serves a highly diverse population, including a number of transgender students who were stung by the administration’s decision to rescind Obama-era guidance permitting students to use the restroom that matches their gender identity.
“We have this educational philosophy that’s really progressive,” Gallagher said. “For some of our students, what the Trump administration represents seems to be a threat to the way we live our lives every day.”
Gallagher ultimately helped the school community accept DeVos’ visit in the spirit of “communication and dialogue.”
DeVos was met by more than 150 protestors outside the academy. The local television reports focused mostly on that—but radio and print media showcased the school, Gallagher said. Some reporters who had been covering education in Missouri for years told him they didn’t know about the decades-old academy until DeVos’ visit.
Gallagher liked that DeVos seemed genuinely interested in getting to know his students, even when the cameras weren’t rolling. “Sometimes, she’s cast as being evil. I have a hard time seeing her as evil after watching her interact” with the school. That doesn’t mean he thinks she’s on the right track from a policy perspective. “Some of her solutions, I think, leave something to be desired,” he said.
And that’s a big part of the problem, said Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose research focuses on how schools are influenced by social and economic conditions.
If she wants to change hearts and minds, DeVos needs to move off choice and talk about one of the “motherhood and apple pie” issues in K-12—STEM education, he said, referring to science, technology, engineering, and math, or maybe early childhood—and back it up with policy.
“If she were to exercise leadership on one of those issues, it could help in winning some people over or at least getting them to back off,” Noguera said.
But for now, “I feel like people know who she is and what she’s about, and [they think] she does have a track record and it’s not good for public school. I think that’s what the protests are about.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2017 edition of Education Week as DeVos’ Voice Squelched Amid Critics