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What Does Trump’s Volatile Relationship With His Cabinet Mean for Betsy DeVos?

By Alyson Klein — March 21, 2018 8 min read
There are sharply differing views on how much impact President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had on K-12 during his first year.
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Last week was not the greatest week to be a member of President Donald Trump’s cabinet. The president dismissed his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, reportedly on Twitter. And he hinted that there could be more high-level firings on the way.

That threw speculation on Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin; Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson; Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt; Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and even, in a small handful of places, including the Washington Post, on U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who had a widely-panned interview with “60 Minutes” that aired last week.

So what does all that drama mean for DeVos? Trump is hard to predict. But policy experts on both sides of the aisle don’t think the education secretary is in any real danger of getting the axe.

Her interactions with Trump seem to be positive overall, said John Bailey, who served as an aide to President George W. Bush on education issues.

“I think it’s been a respectful and measured relationship,” said Bailey, who is now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank that has received donations from DeVos and her family.

He noted, for example, that Trump invited DeVos to sit in on a listening session with survivors of school shootings, including the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead.

And he said it’s “significant” that Trump picked her to head up a school safety commission tasked with making recommendations after the Florida shooting—a job that could have gone to another cabinet secretary, aide, or even to an outsider. (To be sure, the announcement that DeVos would be leading the commission came as the “60 Minutes’"interview aired).

Many of the folks on the firing watch list have been accused of misspending taxpayer funds or have clashed publicly with the president on key policy issues. DeVos hasn’t done either, said Mike Cohen, who worked in the White House and the U.S. Department of Education during the Clinton administration.

“The ’60 Minutes’ performance demonstrated that she’s no more well-qualified now than she was at her confirmation hearing,” said Cohen, who is now the president of Achieve, a nonprofit organization that helps states prioritize college and career readiness. “That’s not news.”

Cohen thinks DeVos’ job is safe in part because, “she’s just not visible or important enough for him to worry about.”

DeVos’ staff has said the “60 Minutes” program was “highly edited” and didn’t accurately reflect her views. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders did not defend DeVos’ performance, and said in response to reporters’ questions that the president, not the secretary, would be the face of the administration’s school safety efforts, triggering some difficult headlines for the secretary.

Bailey, though, thought that the Sanders’ response was pretty standard for a White House that wants the president to be front-and-center on every issue.

“I wouldn’t read too much into it,” he said. Still, he noted Sanders’ statement “kept the question [of the president’s opinion of the interview] out there. It wasn’t shutting it down by saying no, the president has absolute confidence in the secretary.”

Beyond the school safety listening session, Trump and DeVos have done some high-profile events together. Shortly after Trump’s first State of the Union address in early 2017, DeVos traveled with him to a private, Catholic school in Florida whose students benefit from the state’s tax-credit scholarship program. She later joined him on a trip to Wisconsin, to check out a career-education program. Early on in the administration, the two held a roundtable discussion on education issues with Vice President Mike Pence, spotlighting school choice. They even grabbed lunch recently at the White House.

And DeVos has walked a careful line in dealing with some of the president’s most volatile statements. Last year, for example, she decried racist, anti-Semitic demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., even though the president had said there were many “fine people” among them. But DeVos did not criticize Trump or his rhetoric, to the chagrin of some in the education community.

There seem to have been times when Trump and DeVos didn’t see eye-to-eye. Case-in-point: A reported tussle over how to handle rescinding the Obama administration’s guidance on transgender bathrooms. Trump sided with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recommended immediatly rescinding the guidelines over DeVos’ objections. (Matt Frendewey, who was doing communications work for the department at the time, noted that the secretary wasn’t the only one in the administration who opposed immediately scrapping the guidance and who wanted to think the issue through further.)

The secretary has occasionally made it clear that her style is different from Trump’s. During a recent interview with NBC’s “Today” show, Savannah Guthrie asked DeVos what she thought of the president’s contention that the networks’s Chuck Todd, the moderator of “Meet the Press,” is a “sleeping son of a bitch.”

DeVos said she would “probably use different language myself, and I think we all have an opportunity and a responsibility to be examples to our kids.” That should apply to the president, she added.

Bailey is betting that exchange wasn’t a big deal for the White House. If it was, “we would have heard about it by now,” he said. “Not engaging, I think they’re fine.”

Washington rumor has it that the president told DeVos he was unable to push for her tax-credit scholarship proposal as part of the recent tax overhaul legislation. But DeVos said in an interview with Education Week last fall that she thinks the president continues to share her commitment to school choice.

“She’s had a great amount of freedom to really lead the department,” said Frendewey, who also did communications work for DeVos at the American Federation for Children, the nonprofit she started. “There haven’t been these massive brushups that you’ve seen in other departments, like Justice, the VA, State. When there have been dust-ups people misread the tea leaves.”

Bailey though, said that DeVos still seems to be figuring out how to work what he called the “White House process.” For example, she doesn’t seem to have been a big part of the administration’s conversations about what to do about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows some 800,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children to remain here legally. Trump rescinded DACA last year, but the issue is now tied up in courts.

“It’s amazing that it seems like the process the White House is using to decide DACA has not involved the secretary,” Bailey said. “You have to be scrappy to help shape these policy issues in which you have equity in the outcome.”

Trump and DeVos didn’t work together before he ran for president. In fact, she wasn’t a huge fan of his in early 2016.

“I don’t think Donald Trump represents the Republican party,” DeVos told the Washington Examiner back in March 2016. “I think more and more people are going to realize that they really don’t trust him.” Her family of GOP megadonors went “all in” on Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in the Republican presidential primary. And DeVos showed up at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland as a delegate for Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio, who is now reportedly mulling a primary challenge to the president.

To be sure, DeVos is hardly the only cabinet member who wasn’t a long-time Trump confidante. The president didn’t know many of his other secretaries well before they came to work for him. And one, Carson, ran against him for the 2016 GOP nomination.

But past education secretaries were able to use long-standing relationships with the presidents that appointed them to their advantage—and to the department’s.

Richard Riley, a former South Carolina governor, was Bill Clinton’s long-time friend and mentor, before serving as his education secretary. Margaret Spellings was a top aide to President George W. Bush when he was governor of Texas, and had been a key White House adviser. (“He trusts me,” she told Education Week back in 2006.) And Arne Duncan, the former Chicago school superintendent, had a regular basketball game going with President Barack Obama, before he ever served in his cabinet.

That closeness mattered, Cohen said. For instance, Clinton was careful not to lend to support to K-12 proposals unless he had Riley’s backing.

Riley and Clinton “started with a deep reservoir of trust and good will,” Cohen said. “That doesn’t seem to be in great supply currently” between Trump and much of his cabinet, he said.

DeVos, though, does have a long relationship with Vice President Mike Pence, dating back to his time as a school-choice-friendly governor of Indiana.

She gave Pence about $2.4 million in campaign contributions for his gubernatorial campaigns, and her husband, Richard DeVos Jr., gave him about $3.2 million, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. And, in a quick interview at the Republican National Committee, she had warm words for Pence’s commitment to choice.

Pence’s championship of the issue isn’t just rhetoric, she said at the time, “he feels it in his heart of hearts.”

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