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Parkland, ESSA, and That Tweet: Betsy DeVos Had Herself a Week

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 11, 2018 5 min read
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That was quite an eventful week Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos just had. Let’s recap:

And then on Sunday, her interview with the 60 Minutes news program on CBS made waves.

The week highlighted how DeVos has attempted to use the bully pulpit and public appearances in general during her first year-plus as education secretary, following her tough confirmation fight in 2017 and federal lawmakers’ unwillingness to enact her top policy priorities. And DeVos told us last year that negative reactions to her public appearances, such as protests, don’t really bother her.

But as we also noted last October, the bully pulpit is no easy perch, as the past week just proved. (We reached out to the U.S. Department of Education for comment, but didn’t get a response.)

Keep these things in mind: None of the messages DeVos delivered in the last few days were totally new.

  • In official announcements approving certain states’ ESSA plans, she’s stressed that the plans comply with the law, but that she hopes states will deliver additional innovation to education to help students. And she made it clear she had no desire to reject plans merely because she found them unimaginative, thereby maintaining her position that the federal government shouldn’t pick winners and losers or exert itself on states that way.
  • She’s consistently criticized the lackluster learning environment for many American students in her roughly 13 months as education secretary. Remember when DeVos criticized a group of teachers as being in “receive mode” shortly after she was confirmed? A lot of people didn’t care for that remark either.
  • And her visit to Stoneman Douglas wasn’t the first time she visited a school in the wake of a shooting, although her previous visit under similar circumstances to a California school in 2017 took place under a much less intense spotlight. (A student and a teacher were killed in that school shooting.)

Read on for two very different reactions to her week.

Small and Shrinking Fan Base?

Still, DeVos’ past week didn’t do much to showcase her ability to communicate effectively, said Patrick Riccards, an education communications strategist who’s worked for both Democrats and Republicans. He said her speech to the state K-12 chiefs last week was evidence that the Trump administration’s general belief in “chaos theory” has now spilled over into the Education Department.

“It’s fair to say that she does not subscribe to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People,” said Riccards.

He added that in the case of her visit to Stoneman Douglas in particular, her staff should have done a better job preparing her for what students and the media were expecting. “When you leave early, it’s the equivalent of checking your watch,” he said. (DeVos left her press conference after making a brief statement and taking a handful of questions.) But Riccards did say she deserved credit for going into tough situations like Stoneman Douglas, where many might take out their suspicions or dislike of the Trump administration on her.

What’s continuing to hurt DeVos, Riccards argued, is that she hasn’t been able to deliver many tangible accomplishments to the allies she had before she took over the department.

Although DeVos has pushed to roll back several Obama-era regulations, her attempts to get Congress to enact various school choice initiatives through the budget process has gone over like a Speedo on a hippo.

“Her tribe in American education right now is very small,” Riccards said. “And I think it’s getting smaller as more people continue to look for what this administration stands for, education-wise.”

‘Deserves a Lot of Credit’

But DeVos actually hit a lot of the right notes in her speech to the Council of Chief State School Officers and effectively differentiated her approach from that of the Obama administration, said Andy Smarick, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who worked in President George W. Bush’s Education Department.

“I think she deserves a lot of credit for the strategy behind that speech,” Smarick said.

In fact, according to Smarick, her speech to state chiefs was the perfect use of the bully pulpit, because she clearly distinguished her role of approving ESSA plans that comply with the law from her role as an advocate for innovative policies. And after eight years of an Obama administration that never declined a chance to push or cajole states on every education policy issue within reach, those working educators might appreciate the shift in gears, said Smarick.

“It’s the stark difference between the Obama era and the Trump era,” he said.

That’s not to say Smarick thinks it was the perfect speech. He thinks that DeVos should have left out the Beltway narrative that state leaders mostly wait for direction from Washington before acting. Given that they have to handle so many different issues and weigh the interests of governors, state lawmakers, and others, it’s wrong to believe they wait for a starting gun to go off in D.C. before they get going, he stressed.

If DeVos had more top staffers who were experienced in state education leadership, Smarick offered, “they probably would have read that speech in advance and said, ‘Hold on, we need to talk about this differently.’” (Trump’s nominee to be DeVos’ assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, Frank Brogan, is the former state chief and lieutenant governor in Florida, among other positions. He is still awaiting confirmation.)

GIF from PBS NewsHour footage of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ press conference after visiting Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on March 7.

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