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 Wednesday. “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 for 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. (More on that below.)
“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. Arne Duncan was a fan of charters, and Margaret Spellings championed tutoring and public school choice.)
But, she added, most of the action on choice isn’t in Washington.
“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.”
For those keeping score at home, we’re still waiting for approvals 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. (You can see a full list of key players and vacancies here.)
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 key 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. (Evers was controversial because of his role in the so-called “math wars”.)
By contrast, Blew, Trump’s nominee for the 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.
Another of DeVos’ big frustrations with Washington? The budget. DeVos wishes she had more control over how her department spends its money. Instead, she has to work with Congress and the Office of Management and Budget.
“I would love to have just a top-line number with every degree of latitude to decide what’s in that budget. But that’s not what happens. We all know that the congressional approach to things is colored by the fact that each individual represents a district and a state.”
DeVos said she’s particularly 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.
Is there a regulation that DeVos thinks is appropriate and should stick around? She couldn’t think of one off the top of her head. But she said that generally “this department’s role in ensuring students’ civil rights and ensuring the rights under the IDEA act, those are important roles.”
And she 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 wasn’t ready, though, to provide an update on whether she’d be scrapping Obama-era guidance which pushed 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. “It’s our goal to go back and make sure that whatever ultimately unfolds from a regulation perspective is sensitive to all of the parties involved. 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. To make sure that students are [at the] forefront.”
The Every Student Succeeds Act’s Democratic architects—Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia—have argued 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 chairs, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina.
But she’s not letting states slide, she said.
“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’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.”
Does DeVos think the ESSA plans are high-quality? “In terms of the quality of each state, very honestly, there’s lots of areas for continued improvement,” she said, without getting into specifics. “A plan is nothing but a bunch of words on paper. The implementation of the plans and how each state unrolls the implementation of the ESSA plans is going to be really important. "
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 a series of speeches encouraging educators to reconsider everything from seat time to how learning is delivered. So can we expect any big policy initiatives to help schools do this rethink?
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.
This innovation, she said, has to happen at public, charter, and private schools alike. “We have to keep changing and getting better at doing school for kids,” she said.
In the past, the department, has been a barrier to change, pushing “one-size-fits-all approaches and solutions to things” during the Bush and Obama years, she 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.”
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 Trump’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 plans for K-12 tuition 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 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.”
DeVos said she was “encouraged” by some of the plans for improving schools in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, which include a proposal by the governor to create charter schools, private school vouchers, and to increase teacher pay. DeVos called it a “thoughtful” approach to “really meeting students needs in an individual way.”
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