U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos finally took the helm of her agency this week after a bitter and tumultuous confirmation process unlike any other in the U.S. Department of Education’s more than three-decade history.
Now, it’s an open question whether DeVos can make the transition from highly divisive nominee to effective leader.
Also unclear: whether the thousands of educators, advocates, and members of the general public who called their senators urging them to vote against DeVos will try to find common ground with her—or continue to make their case against her.
DeVos struck a conciliatory tone in her first speech to agency employees this week.
“The obstacles between our nation’s students and their pursuit of excellence can all be overcome,” she said at Education Department headquarters the day after she was confirmed. “All too often, adult issues can complicate and get in the way of a focus upon those we serve. The good news is: We can all work together to find solutions and make them happen.”
And she tried to reassure those who worry that the department might back away from its civil rights mission during her tenure.
“The department also has a unique role in protecting students,” she said. “We believe students deserve learning environments that foster innovation and curiosity and are also free from harm.”
So far, DeVos and the White House have yet to fill key staff positions at the department, including the deputy secretary, the No. 2 position. DeVos also has yet to lay out details of her policy priorities going forward, beyond a general focus on school choice and local control.
Right up until the moment the Senate confirmed her Feb. 7, DeVos—a billionaire school choice advocate whose family has donated tens of millions of dollars to Republican candidates and causes—was at the center of a firestorm of opposition.
Demonstrators hit the streets in multiple cities to protest DeVos’ qualifications. She was spoofed on “Saturday Night Live.” Opponents slammed her on social media and jammed the phone lines on Capitol Hill. And Democrats held the Senate floor for 24 hours of speeches calling DeVos unfit for the job.
The chamber deadlocked 50-50 on her nomination. For the first time in history, the vice president, Mike Pence, had to break the tie to approve a cabinet nomination.
The intense opposition had begun to build after an underwhelming confirmation hearing last month in which DeVos seemed confused about core issues in K-12 policy, including federal special education laws and measuring student performance.
Her performance at the hearing hypercharged already existing concerns about DeVos’ depth of knowledge when it comes to public education. She is the first secretary who hasn’t been either a public school student or parent. And, unlike most of her predecessors, she has never worked professionally on education at the state, district, or university level. Democrats also warned, again and again, of potential financial conflicts of interest stemming from her investments.
Even though the campaign was ultimately unsuccessful at preventing DeVos from taking the reins at the department, it had some effect: Two Republican senators—Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins—voted against DeVos on the floor after supporting her in committee.
The close vote may not bode well for some of the school choice initiatives that DeVos—who has spent much of her career supporting candidates who embrace vouchers and charters—could propose. Such an initiative may need 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles, and support from Democrats, and even some Republicans, doesn’t appear to be forthcoming.
And Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee who led the fight against DeVos, said ahead of the vote that the secretary will enter the agency as a hobbled leader.
“She would start her job with no credibility inside the agency she is supposed to lead,” Murray said. “With no influence in Congress. As the punchline in a late-night comedy show—and without the confidence of the American people.”
But Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the education committee chairman, who helped shepherd DeVos’ nomination through the chamber, said she would be an effective leader—a champion for both school choice and local control.
“She will implement our law replacing No Child Left Behind the way we wrote it,” Alexander said during debate. “She has worked tirelessly to give low-income children more of the same kind of choices that wealthy students have.”
DeVos hasn’t been specific about her agenda and didn’t get into the details during her speech to department employees. But President Donald Trump pitched a $20 billion initiative during the campaign that would enable public funds to follow children to the schools of their choice, including private schools. That proposal would have to go through Congress.
Working With Critics
Hundreds of education organizations—from teachers’ unions, to civil rights organizations, and even some charter school supporters, such as philanthropist Eli Broad—sent letters to Capitol Hill in the past few weeks either urging senators not to support DeVos’ nomination as education secretary or raising concerns about her.
Some of those groups say they now stand ready to work with DeVos on areas of common interest.
Kati Haycock, who recently announced she’s stepping down as the leader of the Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority children and opposed DeVos’ nomination, said of the new secretary, “I think she’s a grown-up. We have always managed to work with folks on things we agree on and to oppose them on things that we don’t.”
But Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, which vehemently opposed DeVos, told Politico recently that she doesn’t see an opening.
And civil rights advocates wasted no time in letting DeVos know that they’ll be watching her closely.
“The fact that her confirmation vote was the first in American history to require a tie-breaking vote by the vice president speaks to the widespread concern about her qualifications raised by the civil rights community, concerned parents and educators from across the country,” said Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in a statement released shortly after the vote. “Working with partners at the federal, state, and local level, we will hold this new secretary accountable to faithfully executing our nation’s education and civil rights laws.”
The Every Student Succeeds Act has stripped away many of the department’s powers, making the secretary’s bully pulpit—and credibility within the education community—all the more important.
Jeanne Allen, the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, which supports vouchers and other forms of choice, suggested DeVos start by convening small groups of teachers, parents, school choice advocates, home school proponents, state chiefs, school board members, and faith-based organizations and listening to what they have to say.
“Yes there’s been a firestorm of people writing and yelling and screaming, but it’s the rank and file parents and teachers that I think that she should spend her first hundred days talking to,” Allen said.
Getting some of that rank and file on board may be a tall order.
“I have a fundamental objection, like a deep-in-my-core objection, that somebody who is so grossly unqualified and incompetent is going to be the leader of our nation’s schools,” Nate Gibbs-Bowling, Washington state’s teacher of the year, said recently on a panel sponsored by the Council of Chief School Officers and the Aspen Institute.
State chiefs generally didn’t take public stances for or against DeVos.
But Pedro Rivera, the education secretary in Pennsylvania, harkened back to his teaching career in describing what it might be like to work with her.
“As a classroom teacher, I’ve worked with principals that I didn’t necessarily care for and [under] school policies that I didn’t like, but ... at the end of the day, we’re in this role because we care about kids, and nothing that happens above us is going to change that.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 15, 2017 edition of Education Week as DeVos Takes Reins at Ed. Department, While Anxieties Persist