Three Ex-Education Secretaries Have Schools Named for Them. Could It Happen for Betsy DeVos?

By Corey Mitchell — July 26, 2017 4 min read
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After just five months on the job, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos can probably stake her claim as the most controversial education secretary in history.

Teachers unions’ have branded her as a public enemy. Her advocacy for school vouchers has drawn condemnation, her stance on civil rights has stirred up controversy, and critics have come out in droves during her public appearances.

That made us wonder: Will a public school ever be named in DeVos’ honor?

Three former national education secretaries—Terrel Bell, Lauro Cavazos, and Rod Paige —have K-12 schools named for them.

It’s probably too early to tell if any of the recent officeholders will join the club. But while reporting a story about schools named for Barack and Michelle Obama, we found that school-naming committees usually embrace names unburdened by politics.

That would seem to put a divisive figure like DeVos at a disadvantage. The former education secretaries who have been honored have apparent ties to the schools or districts: the honorees lived, worked, or oversaw institutions in the cities where the schools are located.

Here’s the roster of former education secretaries:

Shirley Hufstedler (served under President Jimmy Carter)

No. Hufstedler, the nation’s first education secretary, had a distinguished legal career before President Jimmy Carter appointed her in 1979.

Terrel H. Bell (served under President Ronald Reagan)

Yes. TH Bell Junior High in Ogden, Utah, carries his name. He served as superintendent from 1958 to 1962. He served as state superintendent when the school was dedicated in 1963.

William J. Bennett (served under Reagan)

No. Bennett, a political pundit and chairman of Conservative Leaders for Education, courted controversy during his tenure. Much like DeVos, he was a frequent target for those who objected to his criticisms of public education in the United States.

Lauro F. Cavazos (served under presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush)

Yes. Cavazos has two schools named for him, both in his native Texas. Cavazos Middle is in Lubbock, where the ex-education secretary served as president of Texas Tech University and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. Cavazos Elementary is in Odessa, the site of one of the health sciences center campuses.

Lamar Alexander (served under Bush)

No. But if a schools are named for Alexander in the future, it would likely happen in his home state of Tennessee. As a former governor and university president there, and current chairman of the Senate education committee, he has been deeply engaged on education issues for decades.

Richard Riley (served under President Bill Clinton)

Sort of. Two universities, Walden and Winthrop, have named their colleges of education for Riley, and an institute at Furman University bears his name. But so far, no K-12 schools have bestowed similar honors on the former South Carolina governor.

Roderick Paige (served under President George W. Bush)

Paige has two schools that bear his name. One, Rod Paige Middle, is in his hometown of Monticello, Miss. The other, Roderick Paige Elementary, is in Houston, where Paige served as a school board member in the early 1990s, and then superintendent from 1994 to 2001.

Margaret Spellings (served under Bush)

No for Spellings, who is the president of the University of North Carolina system. If she is ever honored, a school in Texas would be the best bet. She graduated from a high school in the Houston school district and her early education advocacy work happened in the Lone Star State.

Arne Duncan (served under President Barack Obama)

No, for Duncan, the former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. But there may be hope, even if it is slight. The school district’s first superintendent, John Dore, has an elementary school in the city named in his honor. However, the same can’t be said for many, if any, of his successors.

John B. King Jr. (served under Obama)

No, for King, the president and CEO of The Education Trust. A former teacher, principal, charter school leader, and state schools chief in New York, King spent about a year on the job as education secretary.

Betsy DeVos (serving under President Donald Trump)

No, but DeVos and her husband founded the West Michigan Aviation Academy, a charter high school in Grand Rapids. If any school is to take on DeVos’s name, the most likely prospect would be in the charter sector, and in particular, the online charter school sector, which she has championed. It’s also conceivable that a future private school voucher program could be named for her.

Photo Credit: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and President Donald Trump tour St. Andrew Catholic School on March 3, in Orlando, Fla.

--Alex Brandon/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.