After weathering a political storm over the Trump administration’s proposed budget at the end of March, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos continued her run of public appearances into April, and got widely varied reactions from state education leaders and from lawmakers on Capitol Hill on issues ranging from arming teachers to testing.
In a discussion at a Council of Chief School Officers meeting, DeVos told states she’d look favorably on changes they might want to propose to their Every Student Succeeds Act plans—but only up to a point.
Two days later, before a House education committee hearing, DeVos defended President Donald Trump’s pitch to create $5 billion in annual tax credits to support school choice and other forms of educational choice. But in a confrontational move, committee Democrats took the opportunity to reveal a 2018 Education Department memo that they said contradicts her claims that it’s up to states to decide whether they can use certain federal grants to purchase guns and train teachers in the use of firearms.
And the day after that contentious House hearing, the secretary again pressed for the scholarships at an event here hosted by the Ronald Reagan Institute.
In each of those appearances, DeVos stressed she is trying to help students and teachers who she said are ill-served by traditional education practices and systems. DeVos also appeared to have survived another round of shakeups within Trump’s cabinet—as of the end of last week, DeVos had outlasted 10 other original members of Trump’s cabinet who, like her, required Senate confirmation.
Shift in Tone
When DeVos last appeared before the state chiefs in 2018, her remarks triggered something of a backlash among the officials she addressed. In that speech, she criticized states for not taking advantage of the freedom allowed to them in their ESSA plans. DeVos said at the time that she was taking a “tough love” approach with states, but some chiefs bristled, saying that they were indeed taking innovative approaches to helping students.
One year on, however, DeVos struck a gentler tone during a discussion at the CCSSO’s annual legislative gathering. She again encouraged states to use ESSA’s flexibility, and also counseled that they be more proactive in changing their teacher workforce if the need arose to ensure more talented educators enter the profession. At the same time, she said the teaching profession has taken a “bad beating” in recent years.
Her shift in attitude wasn’t a complete reversal, however. On the subject of states’ desire to call an audible on their ESSA plans, DeVos said her tolerance for alterations to them were limited. (DeVos has approved plans from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.)
“Anything that is going to ultimately result in greater student achievement is going to be seen very favorably by the Department of Education,” DeVos told the chiefs. “On the other end of the spectrum, if it’s a request to obfuscate or put off something that you should be doing today for students, that will not be as well-received.”
Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera noted the shift in DeVos’ comments compared to what he had heard out of last year’s meeting, stating, “It was a good dialogue. It was a very good dialogue.”
Two days later, DeVos herself was not particularly well-received by House Democrats, who took control of the chamber at the start of the new Congress in January. Newly empowered Democrats took DeVos to task over the Trump administration’s proposals to cut $7.1 billion from the department’s budget by slashing programs for literacy, teacher professional development, and more.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the committee chairman, listed the importance of providing students equitable opportunities and lamented, “Unfortunately under the president’s fiscal 2020 budget, it would be nearly impossible to meet that challenge.” (Congress is likely to reject many of the key elements of the budget Trump and DeVos proposed.) And Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, labeled the $5 billion tax-credits proposal a “ridiculous” idea that would ultimately benefit the wealthy, just like the 2017 federal tax cuts Trump signed into law.
But Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., a first-term Democrat and the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, created perhaps the biggest stir.
At issue was a controversy from last year over whether DeVos would allow certain money under ESSA to be used to arm teachers; the money in question is grant aid under Title IV, which was created to support student well-being, school safety, and academic enrichment. DeVos eventually said she would not take a position either way, and that the decision rested with states as to whether the money could be used that way.
But Hayes produced a 2018 internal Education Department memo stating in part that, “It is ... reasonable for the Secretary to disallow this particular use of the funds absent specific Congressional authorization.”
When DeVos maintained states’ prerogatives on this issue, Hayes shot back that the memo clearly contradicted DeVos’ official position about her authority on this issue.
“You have the ability to make a decision. Your silence is a decision,” Hayes told DeVos.
With the encouragement of several committee Republicans, DeVos was eager instead to focus on the Freedom Scholarships proposal and how they would expand opportunities for dual-enrollment courses and career and technical education, among other things.
When highlighting how the scholarships could open the door to more apprenticeships, for example, DeVos said, “There is no one-size-fits-all approach. But we need to, from this level, make sure that the impediments that are there are broken down to the greatest extent possible.”
More broadly, the top Republican on the committee, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., complained that Democrats had not called DeVos before the committee in good faith. Instead of discussing the best ways of helping students with DeVos, she said Democrats had acted arrogantly towards the secretary.
“This is a gotcha hearing,” Foxx stated.
The next day, at an event hosted by the Ronald Reagan Institute, DeVos talked up the scholarships again alongside Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has introduced a bill to create the scholarships, which would be administered by the Department of the Treasury.
“Education Freedom Scholarships ... will ultimately mean a better education for more kids,” DeVos told the audience. “Think very broadly about what it would mean for kids in every state to find the right fit for them and their future.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as DeVos Mends Fences With Chiefs, Faces Critics in Congress