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DeVos and Trump Don’t Have a Long History Together. Does That Matter?

By Alyson Klein — February 21, 2017 5 min read
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President Donald Trump—who didn’t talk much about K-12 education on the campaign trail—picked an education secretary in Betsy DeVos with whom he doesn’t have close, long-standing ties.

That’s a big departure from the past three presidents, all of whom made K-12 a signature issue and picked at least one person they had known well for years to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

President Bill Clinton picked former South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley, with whom he’d worked on education reform in the South. President George W. Bush tapped his friend and former education aide, Margaret Spellings, as his second education secretary. And President Barack Obama went with his Chicago neighbor and basketball buddy, Arne Duncan, superintendent of schools in the Windy City.

Trump, by contrast, didn’t know DeVos very well before he tapped her for the role. And at the least at the beginning of last year, DeVos wasn’t a huge fan of her future boss.

“I don’t think Donald Trump represents the Republican party,” DeVos told the Washington Examiner back in March 2016. “I think more and more people are going to realize that they really don’t trust him.” Her family of GOP megadonors went “all in” on Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in the Republican presidential primary.

And earlier this year, at a ceremony on Capitol Hill, Trump appeared momentarily forget at one point which cabinet post he had nominated someone named “Betsy” for.

Common Core Differences

But Trump had warm words for DeVos during their first joint appearance, a parent-teacher conference at the White House on Feb. 14, saying she had showed “toughness and genius” during her confirmation fight.

Still, the Trump White House has already shown—in the bumpy rollout of its travel ban that affected folks from seven, largely Muslim countries—that it doesn’t always consult the agencies impacted by its policies.

And the White House could be a wild card when it comes to policymaking, said Reg Leichty, a co-founder of Foresight Law + Policy, a law firm in Washington.

“They are not bound to the same laws of political gravity” as DeVos and her team, he said.

Already, the White House and the department are arguably on different pages—or at least using very different messaging—when it comes to the Common Core State Standards. Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway, still says he wants to get rid of them, as he promised on the campaign trail. But in response to direct questions about this campaign pledge, DeVos has—accurately—pointed out that the Every Student Succeeds Act prohibits her from telling states which standards they can and can’t use. That means the 37 states that are using common core can continue to do so.

It remains unclear how Trump and DeVos will resolve such differences in the way they talk about policy.

‘He Trusts Me’

Past education secretaries and their aides, though, have said that closeness between the president and secretary can be helpful.

Mike Cohen, who served in both the White House and the department during the Clinton administration, said everyone was aware Clinton wouldn’t sign on to initiatives he knew Riley wasn’t also invested in.

Peter Cunningham, a top aide to Duncan, said that his boss’ friendship with the president gave them opportunities to talk about education policy in a casual way. And before stepping down Duncan said he never necessarily saw himself as education secretary, until he had a chance to serve his friend.

“What made it so unique was that someone who was a close friend, someone I deeply respected ... became president,” Duncan said in a speech at Purdue University in Indiana. “I came because I really, really believed in him, and to have a chance to be part of his team was a life-transforming opportunity.”

And we asked Spellings back in 2008 whether her friendship with Bush helped in her job.

“Hell, yes,” she said. “That relationship is a huge asset to me and this department and to this topic. He trusts me.”

That was a sharp contrast to the early days of the No Child Left Behind Act under the Bush administration, when Rod Paige was secretary. The White House at that time would weigh in on the minute details of the law’s implementation, sometimes forcing the department to adjust its planning.

So will it matter that DeVos doesn’t have the same history with Trump that some of her recent predecessors have had with the presidents they served?

It depends on whom you ask.

“There are lots of times when you’re in a room and hear mixed opinions about what does exactly the president want,” Cunningham said. “Secretary DeVos doesn’t have that kind of relationship with Trump at least not yet. They’ll be times when she’ll be guessing.”

But Sandy Kress, who served in the White House during the Bush administration, said what’s going on at the federal level isn’t as important as it used to be. Thanks to the Every Student Succeeds Act, most policy will be driven at the state and local level.

What’s more, Clinton, Bush, and Obama each came in with their own broad education agenda—while Trump has focused mostly on expanding school choice.

And DeVos is a great partner on that. “He picked someone who is true-blue loyal to choice,” Kress said.

DeVos also has a longtime ally almost as high up in the administration: Vice President Mike Pence, who worked to push her favorite policy—school choice—when he was governor of Indiana.

DeVos gave a warm endorsement when I asked her about Pence at the 2016 GOP convention in Cleveland. And he, in turn, said at DeVos’ swearing in that his vote to break the tie on DeVos’ confirmation was the easiest he ever cast.

DeVos, a big GOP donor, gave Pence about $2.4 million in campaign contributions for his gubernatorial campaigns, and her husband, Richard DeVos Jr., gave him about $3.2 million, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Pence, who has a good relationships with lawmakers on the Hill and GOP governors, could help DeVos’ school choice proposals gain traction.

“Pence is a very serious center of gravity,” said John Bailey, who served as a special assistant to Bush for education and labor. “He and Betsy are close. He understands elements of public policy better than a lot of vice presidents we’ve had. He knows education because he was governor.”

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