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Betsy DeVos Waiting for ‘Right Time,’ Circumstances for a Choice Initiative

By Alyson Klein — September 17, 2017 4 min read
Accompanied by principal Anthony Cherry, DeVos is greeted by students at the 21st Century Charter School in Gary, Ind.
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has spent decades advocating for private school vouchers and charter schools, came to Washington with one item at the top of her agenda: to push for a new federal school choice initiative.

Her vision is running into trouble on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers in both chambers have failed to fund either of the school choice proposals in the president’s budget. And it’s looking less and less likely that the White House will push to include a federal tax credit scholarship programin a sweeping tax overhaul package that’s slated to be unveiled soon.

So where does that leave the secretary? She is not giving up, she said in a wide-ranging interview with Education Week last week. And she wants to make sure the administration pursues the best possible school choice policy.

For a more extensive Q&A session with DeVos, click here.

“I think what’s most important that—whatever is done or originated at the federal level—that it not be a new and expansive program to be administered at the federal level, and secondly that we do it at the right time and under the right circumstances,” she told me as we rolled past strip malls on the outskirts of Indianapolis to rural Charlottesville, Ind., the final stop on the secretary’s “Rethink School” tour.

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Some conservative organizations, namely the Heritage Foundation, have been skeptical about a new federal tax credit scholarship, which would give corporations and individuals a tax credit for investing in scholarship-granting organizations that help students attend the private school of their choice. The proposal, they worry, could require the federal government to create a new office to administer the scholarships.

DeVos, who has been championing school choice for more than a decade through advocacy organizations like the American Federation for Children, said she’s willing to wait for the right moment and the right strategy to pursue her choice goals.

“I’ve been at this work for a really long time,” DeVos said. “I’m impatient, but I also understand the necessity for patience and for the right dynamics to be developed. So what comes to my mind is a really good motto that a family adviser has shared with us at a regular interval, which is ‘hasten slowly,’ and I think that’s a really good phrase for me to keep in mind.”

There are rumors that President Donald Trump called the secretary to the White House recently to tell her the tax credit scholarship wasn’t going to happen this year. DeVos declined to confirm those rumors. She thinks the president continues to share her commitment to choice.

For now, it sounds like DeVos will be relying on another important tool of her office—the bully pulpit—to put a focus on states, schools, and districts that are using choice in a way she thinks is working for students.

She is stressing “tours like [the one] we did this week to really highlight and expose to more people the beauty of options and choices,” she said. DeVos said she would “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.”

And she said she’s encouraged by recent action on school choice at the state level.

“The reality is that most of the momentum around this, and frankly most of the funding around it, comes at the state level,” DeVos said. “More and more states are adopting programs that embrace a wide range of choices. And I expect that to continue apace.”

Some other top takeaways from our conversation:

On Public Schools

DeVos is convinced that what schools want and need is more autonomy. DeVos has visited more than a dozen public schools since taking office. And in talking to teachers, parents, and school officials, she said she’s learned that, “there’s a higher than average level of frustration around the inability to really try to do things differently ... In too many places there isn’t the kind of autonomy at a building level to really kind of break out of [the] mold and do things differently to meet students’ needs.”

It’s less clear, though, if DeVos sees federal policy as the right lever to give teachers and school officials the leeway she thinks they’re looking for. The solution, she said, is, “to really help create the environment and encourage states to create the environment that these kinds of schools can grow and happen.”

On the Every Student Succeeds Act

DeVos wishes that ESSA had even more flexibility for states. She encouraged states to “go right up to the line, test how far it takes to get over it.”

“The legislation is lengthy and has way too many subparts that are more prescriptive than they need to be,” DeVos said. (She did not offer specific examples). “But, that being said, I’m encouraged that there are opportunities for states to really implement ESSA in a way that does allow a lot more creativity and flexibility, and I’m encouraging states to do so and not to err on the side of caution, but to really push and go up to the line, test how far it takes to go over it.”

I asked about New Hampshire and Arizona, which have passed state laws that some experts say don’t mesh with federal testing requirements in ESSA. DeVos said those states can do their own thing at the state level, but must comply with the law.

On Civil Rights

DeVos doesn’t think the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the Obama administration’s guidance on transgender students and bathrooms and its new process for considering civil rights complaints will weaken protections for vulnerable kids.

“We made it really clear that we’re going to continue to investigate and to address any concern that’s brought to the department that involves discrimination of students, and we’re committed to that because we’re committed to helping to ensure that students have a safe and nurturing environment in which to learn,” she said.

Oh, and she’s planning to stick around for all four years of Trump’s current term.