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Betsy DeVos Is a K-12 Advocate. So Why All the Action in Higher Ed?

By Alyson Klein — July 24, 2017 4 min read
Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos testifies on Capital Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
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When Betsy DeVos was tapped as U.S. Education Secretary, educators and advocates were terrified the longtime voucher fan would try to “privatize” the nation’s schools. But DeVos has now been in office for going on six months, and she’s been way more active on higher education than she has on K-12.

We’re still waiting around for the details of a big, new school choice plan. Meanwhile, DeVos and company have been slowly scaling back, pausing, or moving to overhaul Obama-era student financial aid regulations.

Recently, for instance, the department started gathering information to begin reworking two Obama rules. One, gainful employment, seeks to hold schools accountable for whether or not their graduates are able to find jobs that allow them to repay their student loans. The other, “borrower defense,” deals with how students who have been defrauded by lenders can seek loan forgiveness. (Great explainer from U.S. News here.) Supporters say those regulations were designed to protect borrowers, but detractors say they are overly punitive and unnecessarily hurt schools and lenders.

DeVos came in with a K-12 background, so why is higher education getting all the love? Here are three big reasons:

The feds have way more say over higher education than K-12

Most education secretaries, including DeVos, Arne Duncan, John King, and Margaret Spellings, came to the job with a background or interest in K-12. But most of them wound up doing a lot on higher education. Why? The feds have far more authority over colleges—through the student lending program—than they do over K-12 schools. Only about 10 percent of K-12 funding comes from Washington. But the feds spend more than states do on higher education.

“They all come to town with grandiose plans and ideas focused mainly on K-12 and [realize they] ran for the wrong office. [They] should have run for school board” because most of the department’s authority and most of its budget is on higher education, said Barmak Nassirian, the director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

To be sure, that didn’t stop Duncan, the Obama administration’s long-serving secretary, from prodding states to adopt new forms of teacher evaluation, higher standards, and more by dangling competitive grants, and promises of flexibility. But that didn’t sit well with Congress. So the Every Student Succeeds Act sought to keep that sort of thing from ever happening again, by explicitly barring the education secretary from monkeying with state’s standards, tests, teacher evaluations, and plans for school improvement. Interestingly, none of those sweeping prohibitions apply to postsecondary policy.

With DeVos at the helm, the Education Department has become “an agency of folks who are very interested in K-12 without a much statutory authority to do a whole lot on that front” without help from Congress, Nassirian added. “All she can do is talk about it.”

There’s more to do on higher education.

Sure, ESSA implementation is taking up a lot of the secretary’s time, at least initially. But the law is a done deal, and could be on the books for years. And the Higher Education Act has been due for a facelift for several years now. DeVos, in fact, has said she’d like to scrap the HEA and start from zero.

What’s more, the Obama administration finalized a number of higher education regulations late in the game, giving the next administration latitude to decide whether to keep, ditch, or tweak them. They also have to decide if they want to proceed with next steps or not.

“Late decisions by the Obama administration have a huge impact on the agenda they are setting,” said James Bergeron, the president of the National Council on Higher Education, and a one-time aide to Republicans on the House education committee. “The calendar is dictating a lot of their decisions.”

The administration has more know-how and support for its higher education agenda.

DeVos and Trump love school choice, but plenty of Republicans in Congress aren’t jumping at the prospect of a big new voucher program, in part because some don’t see it as the right role for the feds. And others worry that it wouldn’t do much to help rural schools.

On the other hand, most GOP lawmakers tend to have something closer to a meeting of the minds on postsecondary policy.

“The R’s are split on K-12,” Bergeron said. But they’re “less split on higher education.” The GOP tends to see eye-to-eye on the need to pare back overlapping federal student aid program, and other big themes.

What’s more, DeVos has Jim Manning on her team as acting undersecretary. Manning, who knows the ins-and-outs of the student financial system, has a long record as a career civil servant and the know-how to help DeVos accomplish her goals.

Some of the folks heading up the K-12 policy work—including Jason Botel, a former principal and state level advocate, who is the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education—have considerable experience in the K-12 world, but are still finding their way when it comes to Inside-the-Beltway education policy.

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