School choice advocate and billionaire GOP donor Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Education, has been at the center of a social-media maelstrom and stirred more opposition than any other nominee to lead the agency in its more than three-decade-long history.
But regardless of those strong feelings, it remains to be seen whether DeVos—if confirmed, as appears likely—would have the clout to be an effective education secretary.
The litany of prohibitions on the secretary’s role in the year-old Every Student Succeeds Act means DeVos would take office with far less executive firepower than such predecessors as Arne Duncan and Margaret Spellings, who used waivers and pilot programs to reimagine implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act, the law’s previous version.
For instance, language in ESSA prohibiting the department from attempting to sway states over academic standards means DeVos would have trouble delivering on Trump’s campaign promise to scrap the Common Core State Standards, which are in place in 36 states and the District of Columbia. DeVos acknowledged as much in a written answer to questions from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member of the Senate education committee.
And DeVos—who is best known for chairing the American Federation for Children, an advocacy organization that supports school choice—would not be assured of big new money for competitive-grant programs to push her agenda, given the president’s assertion in his inaugural address that schools are already “flush with cash,” but not getting results for students.
Even as he championed DeVos’ nomination, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the education committee, made it clear that the votes in Congress aren’t there for the $20 billion voucher program Trump pitched on the campaign trail—although Congress may have an easier time expanding school choice through the tax code.
On top of such institutional constraints, it’s unclear how much credibility DeVos would have with educators upon taking the secretary’s post. The nominee’s apparent confusion about special education laws during her January confirmation hearing and her comment that some schools might need guns to protect against “potential grizzlies,” as one example, had even some Republican teachers who voted for Trump questioning whether she could do the job effectively.
“I totally don’t support her; I think she’s the wrong pick,” said Lindsey Barnes, an elementary school instructional coach in the Kansas City, Mo. district. “When you don’t have a basic understanding of ‘title’ funds [such as special education] that’s troubling to me.”
Christopher T. Cross, who served in the U.S. Department of Education during President George H.W. Bush’s administration, said the controversy surrounding DeVos would “make it hard, no question” for her to enact her agenda.
But, Cross added, “whether it makes it impossible, I think, depends on her.”
“She’s a very smart woman,” he said. “She’s not immune to listening to what’s being said. She could turn the opinion of her at least to neutral"—although, he said, “she’s not going to turn it around” completely.
A groundswell of opposition has emerged ahead of the vote to confirm DeVos’ nomination, expected next week. After her rocky confirmation hearing, thousands of educators and parents called U.S. Senate offices, jamming phone lines.
And more than 200 civil rights organizations, educators, and even some big-name charter school supporters—including Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee, and the philanthropist Eli Broad—have also urged senators not to vote for DeVos.
At the same time, DeVos has won praise from high-profile Republicans, including former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. (Before being tapped to become secretary, DeVos served on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a group founded by Bush.)
She has even gotten backing from some Democrats, including Eva Moskowitz, the founder of Success Academy Charter Schools. Success Academy has received donations from DeVos’ joint foundation with her husband.
Still, the vigorous pushback against the nomination has worked, at least to some extent. Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have both indicated that they would vote against DeVos’ confirmation by the full Senate, even though both had supported her at the education committee level. The pair of GOP moderates said they have concerns about DeVos’ qualifications, as well as her embrace of school choice, which they argued wouldn’t help many children in rural states, such as theirs.
The Senate appears likely to deadlock at 50-50 on the nomination, with Murkowski, Collins, and all Democrats expected to vote against DeVos. In that case, Vice President Mike Pence is poised to break a tie, which would mark the first instance in history of a vice president, as the president of the Senate, casting the deciding vote in favor of a Cabinet nominee.
In a floor speech Friday as the Senate cleared a procedural hurdle for the final vote, Alexander praised DeVos’ record and said that DeVos “will be an excellent education secretary in my opinion, and an important one.” But he also tried to shoot down fears about her by saying she would not impose unwanted policies on schools involving teacher evaluations and vouchers.
However, Democrats blasted the nomination. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., the Senate minority leader, called DeVos “one of the worst nominees that has ever been brought before this body.”
And Murray said DeVos was unqualified, had failed to clear up questions about her finances, and wouldn’t support public education.
As education secretary, DeVos would have a hard time pushing states and districts in significant new directions that local leaders wouldn’t want to take, in part because of the restrictions in ESSA, the latest edition of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“Expanding the [secretary’s role] would fly directly in the face of the most recent legislation,” said Elizabeth Mann, a fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. And if DeVos did overreach, lawmakers who complained bitterly that Obama education secretaries overstepped their bounds would have to call her on her actions, or risk looking like “blatant hypocrites,” Mann added.
At least two Republican senators—Nebraska’s Deb Fischer and Kansas’ Jerry Moran—extracted promises from DeVos that she would respect state authority, including no federal voucher mandates, before agreeing to vote for her, according to statements from their offices.
Some civil rights advocates worried more about what DeVos wouldn’t do than what she would, especially when it comes to enforcing civil rights laws and the parts of ESSA aimed at improving low-performing schools and boosting the performance of historically overlooked groups of students, such as English-learners and those in special education.
“The deference to states is our biggest concern at the moment,” said Kati Haycock, who announced she was planning to step down from the helm of the Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority children. “The kids we work on behalf of can’t afford a secretary who doesn’t have their back.”
If advocates were to decide DeVos wasn’t properly enforcing ESSA and laws protecting civil rights in education, Congress perhaps would not be the right referee for concerned civil rights groups, Mann said. That’s because Republican lawmakers might not want to rebuke a GOP administration for weak enforcement of civil rights. But the courts could help.
For her part, DeVos said during her confirmation hearing that she would approach ESSA enforcement “as Congress intended, with local communities freed from burdensome regulations from Washington.”
DeVos, though, might find it tough to use of one of the few tools left to the secretary in the ESSA era: the megaphone of her office.
“In order to effectively use the bully pulpit granted to the secretary of education, she will need to both inspire and lead disparate parties with competing agendas. From where I sit, most billionaires don’t operate in that manner,” said Maria Ferguson, the president of the Center on Education Policy, who worked in the Education Department during President Bill Clinton’s administration.
But Michael Petrilli, who served in the department under President George W. Bush and is now the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said DeVos, as a longtime GOP mega-donor, has a line of access to Republican state lawmakers who hold the reins of power in most states.
“She may not have educators,” said Petrilli. “But she’s got Republican legislators and Republican governors.” And many of them have faced the same criticisms DeVos is facing now and may be sympathetic to her, he said.
And on school choice? “They can do a lot,” he said.
Education Week Assistant Editor Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2017 edition of Education Week as Would a DeVos Victory Earn Diminished Prize For Bruised Winner?