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What’s Betsy DeVos’ Record on Teacher and Workforce Issues?

By Alyson Klein — May 08, 2017 4 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is best known as a school choice cheerleader.

But she’s had plenty to say over the years about the importance of paying the best teachers more—and getting rid of teachers who aren’t effective.

And organizations that she’s helped fund and found in Michigan have been players in efforts to make it easier to fire teachers, and whittling down benefits that public sector workers, including teachers, receive.

DeVos didn’t mention any of these issues when she traveled to Van Wert, Ohio, last week with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. But some of her speeches before taking the helm of the department offer clues on her views on the education workforce.

For instance, back in March of 2015, DeVos, who was then the chair of the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy organization, called it an “inconvenient truth” in education that we don’t “pay teachers enough, and we don’t fire teachers enough.”

And she laid blame on both parties. “The Republicans don’t want to pay our best teachers enough, and the Democrats don’t want to reform tenure laws,” DeVos said in a speech at South-by-Southwest Education in Texas.

She noted that teaching takes a lot of skill. “We should reward and respect great teachers by paying them more, and we should stop rewarding seniority over effectiveness,” DeVos said in the same speech.

Those sentiments seem to put DeVos on roughly the same page as her boss, President Donald Trump. On the campaign trail, Trump said he finds it unfair that “bad” teachers sometimes earn “more than the good ones.”

Since taking office, neither DeVos nor Trump has talked much more about merit pay, revamping teacher tenure, or delved into specifics on other big-picture teacher-quality policies. (Instead, the Trump budget proposes getting rid of Title II, the $2.3 billion program that helps finance professional development.)

Still, the policies that organizations DeVos has founded and funded—particularly the Great Lakes Education Project, a Michigan-based advocacy organization—may offer some more insight on her views. (Importantly, GLEP doesn’t speak for the secretary.) Some of the initiatives they have supported in the Wolverine State over the past decade:

Evaluation: GLEP backed an effort calling for student growth on tests to make up at least 25 percent of a teachers’ overall evaluation. (Test-based evaluations were also a big Obama administration priority. In fact, they were necessary for states to get waivers from federal mandates and a leg-up in the Race to the Top competition.)

Tenure: GLEP supported efforts to make it harder for new teachers to get tenure, especially if they weren’t found to be effective. And they supported a move to make it easier for school boards to demote or fire tenured teachers. (Teachers still could not be fired for “arbitrary and capricious reasons.”)

Collective-bargaining: Back in 2011, GLEP backed—but wasn’t the public face of—an ultimately successful effort to make changes to collective bargaining, teacher tenure protections, and teacher evaluation in the state. Lawmakers ultimately decided to make it harder for new teachers to get tenure and easier for districts to get rid of teachers who had tenure but weren’t performing well. And the law called for districts to take teacher performance—not just seniority—into account when deciding which educators to lay off.

You can read a description of these changes from the Michigan Education Association, which vehemently opposed the changes. And here’s another description of some of these changes from the Mackinac Center, a free market think tank the DeVos family has also funded, which backed the moves.

What’s more the DeVos family was a force behind a successful campaign in Michigan in 2012 to turn the state—a pioneer in the labor movement—into a “right to work state.” (That means that employees can’t be compelled to pay union dues in order to get a particular job.) The Michigan Freedom Fund, an organization lead by Greg McNeilly, a long-time associate of the DeVos’ helped lead the charge in getting the legislation passed.

Later, Betsy DeVos’ husband, Dick DeVos, said that right-to-work legislation helped make the Wolverine State, “an excellent place to do business.”

Maybe not surprisingly, MEA has a different take. “I think looking at the history of attacks on the rights the livelihoods [of educators], it’s hard to say that [the DeVos family] holds anything but animosity for the school employees of this state,” said Doug Pratt, a spokesman for the union.

Could DeVos push these policies from the federal level, if she wanted to? She could lend her support to them, but she can’t really enact any of these things on her own, at least not on a big scale.

For instance, there have been attempts in Congress to create a federal right-to-work law. DeVos can’t really make that happen on her own from her perch at the department. But she could use the bully pulpit of her new office to cheerlead for it, if that’s something she wanted to do.

DeVos’ options on other aspects of teacher quality are also pretty limited. She could suggest states and districts use merit-pay or get rid of tenure as a school improvement strategy for schools that aren’t performing well under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

And she could encourage states to use federal teacher-quality money—assuming Congress doesn’t cut it—for evaluation. But, thanks to ESSA, she can’t mandate any of these things.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, center, listens as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, left, talks to Van Wert High School freshman Alaina Arney about a patent she has applied for on a protective unit for a flush valve, during a visit to the Van Wert Robotics Club at Van Wert High School, Thursday, April 20, 2017, in Van Wert, Ohio. (Cathie Rowand/The Journal-Gazette via AP)

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