Democrats are poised to make gains in the midterm elections next week, potentially even taking back the U.S. House of Representatives and some governorships.
If that happens, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who donated millions mostly to Republican candidates and causes before joining President Trump’s cabinet, may have some relationship building to do: The overwhelming majority of DeVos’ scheduled conversations in her first year and a half in office have been with GOP policymakers.
DeVos met with or spoke to Republican members of Congress, governors, lieutenant governors, and state chiefs about six times more frequently than with Democrats between her first week in office last year and the end of July 2018, according to an Education Week analysis of her calendar posted on the Freedom of Information Act portion of the department’s website.
That was especially true for members of Congress. DeVos has made meeting with lawmakers a priority, according to her public schedule. But most of her interactions have been with GOP members. She’s had more than 130 meetings (on the phone or in person) with Republican lawmakers or their top aides, compared with about a dozen with Democrats.
“At the very least it reflects the distance between Democrats and Republicans on education. At least from her calendar, it looks like she doesn’t have those strong relationships” on the left side of the aisle, said Elizabeth Mann Levesque, a fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington.
That could make things uncomfortable for DeVos if Democrats take the House majority and assume a new oversight role after the election. If that happens, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the top Democrat on the House education committee, is expected to probe DeVos’ department’s handling of civil rights, the Every Student Succeeds Act, transgender rights, special education, and more.
DeVos’ lack of contact with Democrats could mean that “difficult, thorny questions are raised publicly during oversight hearings, rather than in private meetings” between members of Congress and the secretary, Mann Levesque said. “If you’re talking privately you can hash [disagreements] out, you can find common ground.”
The public calendars do not indicate what the meetings were about or who initiated them.
‘Door Remains Open’
The imbalance isn’t due to a lack of openness on DeVos’ part, said Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for DeVos.
“The secretary is willing to work with any member of Congress who wants to rethink education and do better for America’s students,” Hill said. “The secretary’s door remains open to anyone who wants to get work done and break down the barriers that are holding back needed progress.”
Matt Frendewey, who worked for DeVos at both the Education Department and the American Federation for Children, her school choice advocacy organization, said that it makes practical sense that DeVos would spend more time talking to Republicans. After all, they control the levers of power.
And DeVos worked on state-level school choice legislation with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle before joining the department, he said. Democrats in Congress, he said, haven’t been interested in meeting with her because of the partisan environment surrounding her confirmation and because of her support of school choice.
“Democrats have taken up the ‘resist’ mantra. ... If a Democrat worked with [DeVos] on a bill, imagine if they went back to their local Democratic meeting and tried to talk about it. They would get primaried,” he said.
DeVos has had occasional contact with Democrats who could hold key positions in the next session of Congress. She’s spoken on the phone with Scott at least once and met with him in person at least once, according to the published calendars.
She’s also spoken on the phone at least once to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, and met with her in person at least once, along with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the panel. That March 2018 meeting, though, ended in Murray saying that DeVos had “no confidence” in DeVos’ school safety commission and DeVos responding that Murray had used the meeting to pull a “political stunt.”
By contrast, DeVos has met or spoken with Alexander and his House counterpart, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-Va., more than a dozen times each. She’s had at least a half a dozen meetings or calls with Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the chairman of the subcommittee that deals with K-12 spending, but just one conversation with Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, his Democratic counterpart.
Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for Murray, said the senator “was hopeful that Secretary DeVos would listen to parents and teachers across the country, set aside her rigid anti-public education ideology, and actually work with Democrats for the good of students and schools. We haven’t seen that yet, but Senator Murray has proven that she is always ready to work with anyone, from any party, who is actually willing to work with her to deliver results for students and schools.”
DeVos has had a tough time getting her school choice agenda off the ground, even in a Congress controlled by Republicans. They have twice rejected her pitch for a new private-school voucher program.
DeVos has pointed to gains for school choice at the state level, where Democrats are also likely to make gains. But the secretary has had a lot more interaction with GOP governors and state chiefs than she’s had with Democrats.
She has met with or spoken to Republican governors and lieutenant governors about 45 times, more than four times more often than she’s met or chatted with Democratic governors. (The conversations likely were about a lot more than choice. For instance, back-to-back calls in June with Florida’s Republican Gov. Gov. Rick Scott and Pam Stewart, the state’s Republican chief, could have been about the state’s plan to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, which had not been approved at that time.)
She’s also had at least nine conversations with GOP state chiefs, compared to at least four with Democratic chiefs. (That’s not counting a meeting with a handful chiefs from both parties organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers early in DeVos’ tenure.)
To be sure, there are far more GOP governors and chiefs out there: Republicans hold 33 governor’s mansions, compared to the Democrats’ 16, although the Democrats are favored to pick up governorships this year. (The governor appearing most frequently on DeVos’ schedule? Texas’ Greg Abbott, who, like DeVos, is a school choice fan.)
That lack of connection with state-level Democratic education leaders might also create headaches for the secretary after the election, Mann Levesque said. Some of those new leaders may want to make changes to their ESSA plans, she said. If the department doesn’t get back to them as quickly as they’d like, they may take their complaints to the media.
“If they don’t feel like they have an open channel to talk, I could see those state chiefs saying we’re going to talk publicly about the process,” she said.