If you’ve formed your impression of Betsy DeVos from reading overwrought statements from teachers unions, you may imagine she has horns and carries a pitchfork.
As President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Education Department, west Michigan’s well-known philanthropist and education reform advocate is making the left crazy.
After all, DeVos embodies the principle that the education establishment fears most: school choice.
As NEA President Lily Eskelsen García stated: “Her (DeVos’) efforts over the years have done more to undermine public education than support students. She has lobbied for failed schemes, like vouchers, to fund private schools at taxpayers’ expense.”
The families — often low-income and minority — who have taken advantage of robust choice programs would disagree. So do those who have worked with DeVos.
“She’s very excited about taking this on and continuing the work she’s been doing,” says former Gov. John Engler, who collaborated with DeVos to pass this state’s charter school law. “She believes every child deserves to have a quality education.”
Why is that so scary?
“She is a brilliant choice,” says Eileen Weiser, who is on Michigan’s State Board of Education. “She is calm and rational, and an extremely good listener.”
Traditional public schools that are doing good work and making progress have nothing to fear from DeVos. She’s supportive of any school that offers strong results. What she won’t tolerate is telling families they don’t have a choice if their neighborhood school is failing.
While DeVos will now have a high-profile podium from which to spread the choice gospel, keep in mind that she won’t be able to wave a wand and force vouchers and charter schools on the states. The vast majority of students attend traditional public schools and that system isn’t going anywhere.
“You can’t voucher your way to education reform,” Weiser says.
But it’s worth noting that 25 states do offer some form of private school choice, so it’s not like states aren’t on board.
DeVos will be in a good position to work with governors and state lawmakers to encourage them to develop innovative approaches she’s seen succeed in other states. DeVos has worked closely with national education reform groups such as the American Federation of Children, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education.
She can also help direct Congress to loosen the strings of K-12 federal education money and give states and parents more control over how the funds are used. Trump has supported $20 billion in block grants that could go toward sending kids to charter and private schools.
Teachers and school administrators, if not their unions, should appreciate that DeVos wants to shift more control back to the states, as she thinks local control is more efficient than the federal bureaucracy.
In her role as education secretary, she also has oversight of higher education — a large part of the $70 billion annual education budget.
Andrea Fischer Newman, a regent at the University of Michigan and a friend of DeVos, would like her to study a bipartisan U.S. Senate report that lays out ways to reduce regulatory burdens and costs on colleges. Helping promote free speech on college campuses is also high on Newman’s wish list.
Both Newman and Engler want DeVos to overhaul the department’s Office for Civil Rights. That’s an excellent mission, as the office under the Obama administration has placed tremendous pressure on universities to crack down on campus sexual assault, which has resulted in a lack of due process for the accused. Similarly, the office has told K-12 schools they must allow transgender students into the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice.
Overall, Engler thinks DeVos will offer a fresh perspective and, most importantly, put kids first.
“I’m very optimistic,” he says. “The philanthropy she’s involved with has really been all about children.”