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What Does DeVos Running the Ed. Department Mean for Her Critics?

By Alyson Klein — February 08, 2017 5 min read
Vice President Mike Pence swears in Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the White House complex in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, as DeVos' husband Dick DeVos watches.
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Hundreds of education organizations—from teachers’ unions, to civil rights organizations, even some charter school supporters—sent letters to Capitol Hill in the past few weeks urging senators not to support Betsy DeVos’ nomination as education secretary or raised concerns about her.

Now that she’s been confirmed, by the closest margin of any cabinet official in history, can those groups and the educators they represent find a way to work with her, after expressing big concerns about her qualifications and positions? And will DeVos want to work with them?

In her first public statement after being sworn in Tuesday, DeVos said that she planned on “partnering with students, parents, educators, state, and local leaders, Congress, and all stakeholders” to improve “educational options and outcomes across America.”

And a department spokesman said that DeVos has worked pragmatically in the past, advancing bills that had bipartisan support and reaching out to a range of parents and educators. “Her focus on day one is going to be doing what’s right for kids, and that means reaching out to folks [she] doesn’t always agree with.”

Jeanne Allen, a DeVos supporter who served in the U.S. Department of Education during President Ronald Reagan’s administration, suggested that DeVos take a page from Reagan’s education secretary’s Bill Bennett’s playbook and do a listening tour, meeting in small groups with educators, parents, advocates and more. (U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did something very similar when he started at the department under President Barack Obama.)

The public has mostly gotten to know DeVos through old speeches and her confirmation hearing, which was widely panned. Talking to educators directly—and listening to what they have to say—could change that.

And this doesn’t necessarily have to be done through through formal organizations, said Allen, who is now the CEO of the Center for Education Reform.

“The most important people to reach out to are not the groups but the people they claim to represent,” she said. DeVos can make it clear that there’s room for disagreement, but “there’s not really been any conversation with Betsy DeVos. That dialogue can and will be insightful.”

So far, it’s hard to tell who the Trump administration will be listening to on education in Washington. One meeting on education last month with the transition team—which included White House advisor Rob Goad, but not DeVos—featured representatives from conservative think tanks, fans of home schooling and faith-based education, and representatives from big urban school districts and school boards, sources said. Also present: a coalition of Fairfax County, Va., parents, including one concerned about children reading books with controversial themes, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

But some of the usual suspects were missing, including AASA, the School Superintendents Association, which has worked closely with Republicans on the Every Student Succeeds Act and other issues.

Meanwhile, some advocacy groups are already bracing for a new kind of relationship with the department.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals thought long and hard before deciding to take a stand against DeVos, said Amanda Karhuse, the director of government relations in an interview before the confirmation vote. The organization has never come out for or against an education secretary nominee and knew it may have to work with her later on.

The turning point, though, was DeVos’ confirmation hearing, in which she appeared to lack basic knowledge of key education issues, such as the fact that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a federal law, Karhuse said. At that point, principals asked NASSP to take a stronger stance.

And now? Karhuse said NASSP will try to work with the department, but will also redouble its efforts with other players, including statehouses and Congress.

“I think so much is now going to shift to what’s happening in the states helping our folks to be advocates there,” she said. And when it comes to things like a $20 billion school choice program, which Trump proposed on the campaign trail? “Congress is going to have a voice on all of this,” said Karhuse.

NASSP is also hoping to take advantage of some already-established relationships with career staff and principal ambassador fellows—school leaders who are spending a year at the department.

The National Education Association, on the other hand, does not anticipate any kind of relationship with DeVos, its president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, told Politico.

Kati Haycock, who recently announced she’s stepping down as the leader of The Education Trust, which advocates for poor and minority children and opposed DeVos’ nomination, said of the new secretary, “I think she’s a grownup. We have always managed to work with folks on things we agree on and to oppose them on things that we don’t.” And she added that there will be a check on DeVos’ power: “There’s not a lot that she can do without congressional approval.”

And groups that didn’t officially come out against DeVos’ nomination, but criticized some of her policy positions, are hoping for common ground.

“We remain concerned. There’s an opportunity to work together, but we remain concerned,” said Lindsay Jones, the National Center for Learning Disabilities vice president of policy and advocacy, after DeVos was confirmed as secretary.

However, Jones also indicated that her organization would do the same with an Education Department under DeVos as it has with every other administration.

“I hope that the attention that was paid to this [special education] continues to be bipartisan, and that we do see a Department of Education under Ms. DeVos’ leadership that is willing to work with us to enforce the laws and create the opportunities that we need,” she said.

State chiefs generally didn’t take public stances for or against DeVos, either. But Pedro Rivera, the education secretary in Pennsylvania, harkened back to his teaching career in describing what it might be like to work with her.

“As a classroom teacher I’ve worked with principals that I didn’t necessarily care for and [under] school policies that I didn’t like, but at the end of the day I came in knowing that I had 35 kids in front of me that had to be educated,” Rivera, who was appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said at a forum this month hosted by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Aspen Institute. “As a state chief, I may not always agree with the decisions being made every day, but at the end of the day, I have 1.74 million students that are depending on me to advocate for them and to create state policy so that they can best be educated. ...

“Sometimes [our work] may complement what’s happening at the federal level, sometimes it may run contrary to what the belief system is there. ... At the end of the day we’re in this role because we care about kids, and nothing that happens above us is going to change that,” he said.

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Andrew Ujifusa, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.