Pandemic a High-Stakes Test for Betsy DeVos’ Leadership

Crisis demands strong symbolic, policy responses
By Andrew Ujifusa — April 21, 2020 13 min read
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room, Friday, March 27, 2020, in Washington.
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In her first three years in office, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos drew attention—and fierce criticism—like none of her predecessors. Now, as the country wrestles with the coronavirus pandemic, DeVos faces circumstances no education secretary has ever confronted.

So far, her public actions and messages during the unprecedented shutdown of schools nationwide have demonstrated a mixture of leniency and pressure. But other complex tests await her. The fluctuating pressures—to be lenient or steadfast, to provide resources and clarity but not become overbearing or callous—shift from issue to issue and depend on whether she’s addressing policymakers, advocates, educators, the general public, or all of them at once.

Normally averse to coercing or cajoling states and schools on most issues, DeVos’ political preferences now happen to align in many ways with her limited statutory power, which does not cover decisions about whether to close or reopen schools or how to maintain some kind of instruction. Guidance on those closures, when it eventually came, was written by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, not her agency.

Where her department has acted as a minesweeper, clearing accountability and funding mandates out of schools’ path, DeVos has mostly been executing what’s in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stimulus (CARES) Act that lawmakers passed last month. Even when DeVos exercised her own authority in a high-profile way to let schools scrap federally mandated annual exams due to the pandemic, it’s hard to envision previous secretaries not doing the same.

See Also: Here’s What the Coronavirus Stimulus Bill Means for K-12 Education

Still, DeVos has staked out independent and forceful positions, perhaps best captured by her rallying cry earlier this month: “We can do hard things.” She urged schools to strive to teach new material to students, not just review old lessons. She encouraged officials to think creatively. And she chided schools that were slow or resistant to shift to online learning, stressing that they were not fulfilling their obligations to all students.

“I commend her strong stand that learning has to go on, and that this is not a lost year or a lost cause,” said Margaret Spellings, President George W. Bush’s second education secretary.

But Spellings also said DeVos and her team must do more to provide state and local education officials “as much clarity as possible” through guidance and clear direction. Spellings and others believe that on a variety of issues, DeVos can and should play a powerful role by convening experts, sharing their views, and making it clear that she wants to be a versatile, nonpartisan resource for the field.

The Education Department did not make DeVos available for an interview for this article. In a statement, department spokeswoman Angela Morabito rebutted the idea that DeVos has not done enough to support educators, pointing to the resources she’s released in the past several weeks and the flexibility provided to schools.

Morabito said DeVos “spends most of her day on the phone with local education leaders, from governors to state chiefs to superintendents, and all relay they are getting what they need from the Department.” And, she said, the department has plans to host virtual events to help educators share best practices.

Elsewhere, DeVos must navigate competing demands when her clout in Washington, doubted by many observers long before the coronavirus, is unclear in the current climate. DeVos is not a member of the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force or its Council to Reopen America, a fact that could make her job still more difficult; Spellings called DeVos’ absence from those groups “surprising.”

And DeVos’ looming decision about whether to tell Congress schools should get new flexibility from special education law—an authority granted her under the CARES Act—will be especially fraught.

“In normal days, I’m probably more on her side of the ledger: Let people figure it out, hold them accountable, don’t try to micromanage every input,” Spellings said. “But in times like this … they want cover.”

Morabito, the Education Department spokeswoman, said, “Many schools across the country are up and running without issues. Secretary DeVos has been highlighting and celebrating these successes regularly so others can learn from them.”

As for districts that have struggled to implement remote learning plans, Morabito said the true problem has been “failures of local leadership.” Morabito did not single out specific districts for this criticism.

‘Educate All Students’

There’s been a difference between the flexibility DeVos (and Congress) have provided schools, and the education secretary’s exhortations about what people should expect of schools during the pandemic.

By early March the department had formed a task force led by Deputy Secretary of Education Mick Zais to monitor the situation and help the department work across cabinet agencies in response to the virus. And one of its first messages to the field was a March 5 letter to educators stressing that they should pay “careful attention” to bullying and harassment against students of Asian descent, due to the origin of the coronavirus in China.

The first sweeping move DeVos made to address core issues for schools facing the pandemic was on March 12, when she issued several documents providing schools with information about their responsibilities for testing, student privacy, and assuring continued services for students with disabilities.

Amid confusion in schools across the country, she returned to the last issue March 21, when her department issued a fact sheet stressing that schools should not use situations where they couldn’t provide remote services immediately to all students as “an excuse not to educate kids.”

“We need schools to educate all students out of principle, rather than educate no students out of fear,” DeVos said in a statement accompanying the fact sheet, emphasizing her disappointment in some schools.

Aside from compliance issues, DeVos also urged schools to strive to educate students beyond merely reviewing prior material, even though some states have encouraged teachers to review prior material and only teach new coursework after careful consideration.

“We have an expectation that learning will continue for all students,” DeVos said in a call with reporters in early April. “And we would hope that it would be an aspirational goal ... that the students would not only maintain their current level of learning, but continue to expand.”

DeVos used her one appearance on March 27 at regular White House coronavirus press conferences by pitching “microgrants” to provide students more educational options. However, her department has not publicly provided more details about the idea. And there’s no guarantee these grants won’t meet the fate of her past school choice proposals, which Congress has failed to enact.

Put to the Test

The March 5 letter about Asian-based discrimination was “pleasantly surprising,” said Liz King, the director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, given what she said has been a lax approach to civil rights enforcement by the Trump administration.

But King said DeVos fumbled the chance to provide early, crucial clarity about the rights of students with disabilities, which King said constituted a “failure of leadership.” And she argued that what she sees as DeVos’ consistent unwillingness during her tenure to provide clear guidance on major issues where it’s badly needed is particularly unhelpful in the present circumstances.

“We’ve seen confusion, we’ve seen an abdication of responsibility, we’ve seen advocacy for unrelated, problematic policy,” King said, pointing to the department’s decision amid the pandemic to proceed on updating Title IX rules covering sexual harassment and assault, and on its proposal to create vouchers for teachers’ professional development. “There is a way for the secretary to show leadership without necessarily creating new policy.”

Yet given her place in the Trump administration and what the coronavirus crisis initially demanded of her, DeVos “has stuck to a pretty safe playbook. I think she’s definitely done no harm,” said Maria Ferguson, the executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University and a political appointee at the Education Department in the Clinton administration. “I think she’s probably threaded the needle the best that she can possibly do within this administration.”

Ferguson added, though, that the real test for DeVos’ leadership ability lies ahead. Ferguson said one of those tests will be whether she lives in the “real world” and deals with practical challenges educators face now, instead of reverting to her previous focus on school choice in Washington over the past three years, which has fallen flat several times.

“There are a lot of ways to do this wrong,” she said.

Bringing People, Resources Together

An emerging consensus is that the education secretary can and should share not just guidance on federal programs, but resources that have been shaped by a diverse set of viewpoints.

Pedro Noguera, a professor at UCLA’s graduate school of education who leads the university’s Center for the Transformation of Schools, said he hoped that DeVos and her team would provide guidance and resources—but not mandates—about virtual learning. These resources could focus on how to balance on-screen learning time versus recreation, and how to assess students’ work in these circumstances, he said.

He added that the secretary should be sure to focus on students already marginalized and struggling before the pandemic: “Betsy DeVos would be smart if she tapped into a diverse group of educators around the country to provide advice to her, and to provide advice to the broader public.” However, Noguera added that given DeVos’ record as secretary, he was not optimistic she would do this.

Ferguson recommended that providing a forum for outside experts, in particular on the topic of lost learning time, would be helpful not just to educators.

“It would do the education ecosystem a lot of good to see the secretary of education gathering a large, bipartisan group on a topic that is going to be with us, that has been with us,” she said. “It might also inspire people at the state and local level to do the same thing.”

Spellings said DeVos should convene a range of experts and groups in order to create “a playbook of options” on many issues. Technology developers could help provide new learning models. Architects could help administrators hone in on the physical interactions of students and staff, in order to help bring schools back online in safe, smart ways. Scholars could advise on youth trauma, and leadership experts on how to deploy teachers and other human capital effectively.

“People are eager to do that,” Spellings said.

In that vein, last week federal officials unveiled a new database to which ed-tech companies could add their products, along with evidence supporting their efficacy.

Yet not everyone agrees that DeVos should make a big public push in favor of experts and guidance.

Lindsey Burke, the director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation, said that not only should DeVos push states to provide more educational options for families to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus, but that she should resist future packages like the CARES Act that direct billions in federal aid to schools.

“Nearly all sectors of society are hurting financially right now, not just schools, and bailouts would add to the deficit, burdening future generations of Americans while insulating schools from making necessary changes,” Burke said.

And in one sense, the department’s Morabito said, there’s a coronavirus-driven consensus already forming that dovetails with DeVos’ previous work: “There’s a growing and important bipartisan dialogue happening around abandoning things like changing the traditional calendar, moving from seat time to mastery, ensuring greater access and course choices, and other reforms and questions the Secretary has been raising since taking office.”

A Parallel, Much Smaller Scenario

In 2009 when the H1N1 virus was spreading, then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other agencies to create guidelines to help school officials make decisions for their communities.

The Education Department said that educators should “balance the risk of flu in their communities with the disruption, potential safety risks, and other consequences that school dismissals could cause in education and the wider community.” Duncan said in a statement that if schools were forced to close because of H1N1, “We need to make sure that children keep learning.”

The H1N1 virus never came close to impacting schools the way the coronavirus has. Yet the department’s actions and Duncan’s remarks in 2009 underscore the role the department might play in such an event irrespective of its political leadership.

In a CNN interview last week, Duncan also echoed a sentiment from DeVos—who he has frequently criticized—about the opportunity education leaders now have: “It’s also a time to reimagine education and to think in a much more broad way … My goal, frankly, is not to return back to normal.”

DeVos did lead a government commission on school safety after the mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school in 2018. That commission relied on input from outside groups and individuals, but was led by DeVos and other cabinet members. The commission made a significant decision around guidance—but rather than recommending new formal department guidance, it pushed for an end to an Obama administration directive on discipline and racial disparities. DeVos revoked the guidance shortly after the panel issued its final report.

‘Put Yourself in the Game’

DeVos will be tested in new ways by what lies ahead as more schools try to pick up where they left off and students and educators grapple with unprecedented trauma.

New guidelines from the Trump administration say schools that are closed should remain shut as communities enter an initial phase of resuming normal economic and social activity.

Yet to the extent governors keep school buildings closed and pressure grows on them to open them up to help the broader economy come back to life, any comments DeVos shares on this issue will be closely scrutinized.

DeVos told a radio show host last week that it was “very likely” schools would be open again in the fall, although at least two state school chiefs have expressed reservations about that timeline.

Ferguson said any show of pressure from DeVos on this issue, when lives are at stake, would be unwise: “I would not want that as my legacy.” Morabito said “local leaders are in the best position to make those decisions about reopening,” and the department was ready to help them.

Whether DeVos decides to recommend limited waivers from special education mandates, as the CARES Act requires her to do, might be the most difficult decision of her tenure.

Both Ferguson and Spellings indicated that whatever decision she makes will be controversial, given heightened concerns from the special education communities and unheard-of pressures districts are facing; Spellings went so far as to call the situation a potential “trap” for DeVos given the competing demands.

And beyond guidance, recommendations, and blue-ribbon panels, Spellings has one more piece of advice for how DeVos—after taking proper precautions— can show leadership: Show up at schools. (DeVos will visit schools again “at the appropriate time” when the CDC guidance and circumstances in districts make it suitable, Morabito said.)

“If I were secretary, I’d show up on the day Baltimore is giving out meals to families. Put yourself in the game and go talk to people,” Spellings said. “People want to see that their federal officials get what they’re experiencing and understand it.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 2020 edition of Education Week as Pandemic a High-Stakes Test for DeVos’ Leadership


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