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Donald Trump Hasn’t Prioritized Education, Says Donald Trump’s Education Secretary

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 26, 2019 3 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told a radio interviewer she has “a great relationship” with President Donald Trump—but by her own admission, that hasn’t meant the White House places a ton of importance on her issue.

In the Wednesday interview with Jimmy Sengenberger on Denver’s KDMT, DeVos said that while Trump has backed her efforts to expand educational choice and restrict the federal government’s role in K-12, “Education clearly has not been at the top of his list of priorities to address directly. But he has been very supportive of all the work that we have done.”

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump paid little attention to education policy, although he did pledge to end the Common Core State Standards (something that’s not within his power to deliver) and transfer power from Washington to local officials. A former state K-12 chief said that in 2016, Trump told him he didn’t speak much about the issue because he didn’t think there was a lot of public interest in it at that time. That attitude has mostly continued into his presidency.

The president has spent little time discussing major education policy issues in public appearances at the White House and elsewhere, although the Every Student Succeeds Act has taken away some of the desire, inside the Beltway, to pass sweeping K-12 initiatives. However, DeVos has largely taken a laissez faire approach to approving state’s ESSA plans, thereby granting states significant flexibility. In that sense, some might believe she’s delivered, at least in general, on one of Trump’s campaign promises.

Although the 2017 GOP tax-cut bill did change rules for 529 college savings plans to allow them to be used on K-12 expenses, Trump and DeVos’ big pushes to expand school choice for disadvantaged students in particular have nearly all fallen flat in Congress. (The one exception might be slight increases in charter school aid during her first two-plus years in office, something Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill as well as DeVos have supported.)

Education Freedom Scholarships, DeVos’ signature proposal for fiscal 2020, would create federal tax credits to spur donations for parents to ultimately use on a variety of educational costs and services, including private school tuition, tutoring, and transportation. However, that plan faces an uphill battle in Congress.

DeVos announced a trip to Colorado this week to attend an event celebrating the group Parents Challenge that supports school choice in the state. She told Sengenberger that more than half the states have some kind of school choice program, but many of them are small.

“There’s way more demand for the opportunities than there is supply,” said DeVos, who then stressed that her Freedom Scholarships proposal wouldn’t create a new program at the federal level and wouldn’t hurt traditional public schools. “We know that too many students are forced to go to schools that are not working for them. ... Their families cannot afford to move somewhere differently to make a different choice.”

She also pushed her proposal to create vouchers for teachers’ professional development in order to give them greater freedom as well: “They have virtually no autonomy to make decisions in their classrooms.”

And as she has before, she said money spent on K-12 in recent decades has not produced discernable progress in student achievement. “We need to totally upend education” to get meaningful improvement, she told Sengenberger.

Photo: President Donald Trump listens as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a 2017 meeting with parents and teachers at the White House. --Evan Vucci/AP