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Could Betsy DeVos Move Beyond Confirmation Controversies As Ed. Sec.?

By Alyson Klein — January 25, 2017 6 min read
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Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Education, has come under fire from K-12 groups that usually stay neutral when it comes to education secretary nominees. And educators around the country have questioned her grasp of key programs the department administers, including special education state grants.

But, DeVos has plenty of support from prominent Republicans in and outside of Congress, including heavy-hitters on K-12 policy like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the education committee. She’s likely to be confirmed.

Given all the bitter feelings surrounding her confirmation, however, could DeVos still be an effective secretary? Or would she enter the post embattled and unable to get the education community—.and Democrats in Congress—behind her agenda?

It depends on who you ask.

“Whatever her politics are she is a poor candidate,” said Maria Ferguson, the president of the Center on Education Policy, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President Bill Clinton.

On the other hand, Christopher Cross, who served in the U.S. Department of Education during President George H.W. Bush’s administration, said the controversy surrounding DeVos will “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. She’s not immune to listening to what’s being said. She could turn the opinion of her at least to neutral,” although he acknowledged, “She’s not going to turn it around” completely.

Alexander himself, when we asked him this question Tuesday, responded by saying only that Democrats’ opposition to DeVos reflected poorly on them, not DeVos.

Interaction With Education Groups

DeVos has fans in the school choice community, but opposition to her goes way beyond traditional Democratic allies, like the two teachers’ unions. She’s the first nominee for secretary of education that the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has opposed. The Education Trust, which worked with the George W. Bush administration to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, also issued an anti-endorsement Monday.

And she’s come under fire even from groups that share her enthusiasm for charter schools, but worry she won’t demand the necessary oversight, including the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, and Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee, which put jout a statement last week saying it can’t support DeVos.

What’s more, 38 organizations, including some that aren’t considered particularly partisan, like the Parent Teacher Association, AASA, the School Superintendents Association, Easter Seals, and Teach Plus, signed onto a letter sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, questioning DeVos’ policy positions and qualifications for the job. (The letter did not officially oppose her nomination, however.)

Lawmakers, and DeVos, shouldn’t quickly dismiss that avalanche of concern, said Ferguson. It’s unusual for education groups to throw cold water on someone they know they’re probably going to have to work with.

“People in education are inclined to negotiate. They have to,” Ferguson said. But DeVos’ lack of experience with public education, her apparent difficulty in grasping the basics of federal policy on display during the hearing, and her singular focus on charter schools is enough for groups that normally try to play ball to shift their strategy, Ferguson added.

And Ferguson said, it’s not about politics. “To them, the [Republican, Democratic] piece is the thing that matters the least. There’s so much other bad juju here.”

But Andy Smarick, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that has received some funding from the DeVos family, thinks the pushback may be just as much about the fallout from a divisive presidential election as it is about DeVos.

“It is conspicuous how many groups have spoken out in the way they have and so vociferously,” he said. But other cabinet secretaries have come into their jobs surrounded by controversy and proved effective.

“Do we see the temperature get turned down six weeks from now or three months from now as everyone gets acclimated to the Trump administration and we all move on, or is this something that continues to be a major point of contention?”

If the political climate shifts, “I definitely think she can be effective,” Smarick said.

Smarick served as a deputy commissioner of education in New Jersey and is now president of the school board in Maryland. But he hadn’t worked extensively in public schools before taking those positions, and was met with some skepticism from some educators. To counter that, he said, he spent a lot of time reaching out to educators and getting their perspective. Former education secretary Margaret Spellings, who came from the policy world, not from a school district, did something similar when she gave “teacher ambassdaors” a chance to help craft policy at the department.

“If [DeVos] wanted to take the lead on building bridges she could [start with a] series of visits with district supes with state supes of traditional public schools,"Smarick suggested.

ESSA Implementation

What’s more, if confirmed, DeVos would be taking the helm of the education committee at a time when Every Student Succeeds Act seeks to limit the power of the education. secretary when it comes to school turnarounds, standards, assessments, and more.

That means that if DeVos and her team want states and districts to take advantage of provisions in ESSA that allow them to go further on school choice&such as allowing kids in low-performing schools to transfer to better schools—she will have to use the megaphone of her office

But DeVos may have a tough time getting educators to listen, Ferguson said.

“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,” Ferguson said in an email. “With the recent passage of ESSA, it will be more important than ever for the secretary to have a keen understanding of state and local policy and how charters and choice fit into the mix of issues on the table right now.”

Working With Congress

The chairman and the ranking member of the education committee, Alexander and Patty Murray, D-Wash., proved during the development and passage of ESSA that they can get things done on K-12, even in a polarized and partisan Congress. (Both Murray and Alexander make this Washington Post list of thoughtful and effective leaders.)

But they are obviously very split when it comes to DeVos. And, unless Republicans are able to get close to 60 votes in the Senate after the 2018 mid-term elections, DeVos will likely need at least some support from Democrats if she wants to pass the sweeping $20 billion voucher proposal that Trump pitched on the campaign trail.

And she’ll likely need at least a little Democratic help to pass a more limited voucher pilot program, or put her stamp on other big bills, like career and technical education legislation or a renewal of the Higher Education Act.

Photo: Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos testifies at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in January, 2017.

--Carolyn Kaster/AP-File

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