U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has faced some big challenges in her more than six months in office—setbacks in Congress on her school choice proposals, difficulty staffing her department, protestors greeting her at every turn, not to mention the political stickiness of serving a controversial president.
She’s also come into the agency at a consequential time, with every state filing a detailed plan to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, the first update to the main federal K-12 law in over a decade. And she may well be at the department when Congress next considers an update to special education laws—she says she’s “committed” to staying in her post through the president’s first term.
Education Week spoke with DeVos about all of that and much more in a wide-ranging interview during the secretary’s recent “Rethink School” tour, which covered six states late last month: Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wyoming. Here are some of the highlights (for a more complete version of this interview, click here.)
DeVos, who has spent decades advocating for private school vouchers and charter schools through advocacy organizations like the American Federation for Children, 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 program in a sweeping tax overhaul package that’s slated to be unveiled soon.
Still, the secretary is not giving up. And she wants to make sure the administration pursues the best possible school choice policy.
“I think what’s most important is—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 said as her car rolled past strip malls on the outskirts of Indianapolis to rural Charlottesville, Ind., the final stop on the secretary’s “Rethink School” tour.
Some conservative organizations, such as 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 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 believes 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 decision-making 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.”
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.”
DeVos said she 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.”
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 follow the law.
“Everybody has to comply with the law,” DeVos said. “I’m going to approve every plan that complies with the law. Now, they can have their own requirements within the state that they decide to act upon, but from a federal perspective as long as they comply with the law, they’re going to be approved.”
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 students.
“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.
DeVos said Congress needs to take a close look at both the funding levels for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the main federal law for students in special education, and the requirements in the law for school districts and states.
“I think Congress needs to seriously look at the commitment they made when passing the act to fund it,” she said. “I think there has to be a review of the act and all of the mandates put on states. It doesn’t match up with the funding. I think that there’s opportunity to support parents whose kids are using an [individualized education program], or have an IEP to allow them more flexibility in making decisions around their child’s education, and I think that certainly is an area that should be reviewed regularly by Congress.”
DeVos did not, however, commit to pushing for full funding of IDEA, which would mean the federal government would pick up 40 percent of the excess cost of educating a student in special education.
“I’m not advocating one way or another right now,” she said. “I’m just saying it’s clear that Congress has not funded it at the level they committed to when the law was passed. And I think that is something that should be reviewed on a regular basis.”
DeVos defended the president’s decision to propose the elimination of Title II, the main federal program for teacher quality.
The program is “much too prescriptive and was really shown to not have any real effect or impact,” DeVos said. (State chiefs and many teachers beg to differ.) States, she said, can use other federal funding for teacher development.
And she doesn’t expect that the Trump administration will push districts to adopt performance pay, even though the president campaigned on it.
“I think mandating a one-size-fits-all approach from the federal level is not something I’m seeking to pursue,” DeVos said. “And I don’t believe the president [would] embrace that either. [She favors] encouraging states to look at how [they] are respecting the teaching profession and how much autonomy [teachers have] to make decisions in their schools and in their classrooms. ... I do think that great teachers should be really well compensated and teachers that are not effective should not be in classrooms.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2017 edition of Education Week as DeVos Expounds on Policy In One-on-One Interview