Hard lessons for Betsy DeVos in D.C.
Washington — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos came here from the Grand Rapids area to reform education and expand alternatives to traditional public schools, but her agenda has been rebuffed by a Republican-led Congress and stymied by the polarized climate surrounding her tenure.
Education experts say her Department of Education has few policy wins to tout after more than a year, and a series of stumbles in high-profile forums — from her confirmation hearing to a mid-March CBS “60 Minutes” interview — hurt her ability to effectively harness the bully pulpit.
“She has learned quite a bit on the job,” said Mike Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a policy group in Washington that supports school choice.
“This is a whole new kind of role for Betsy DeVos. She was used to being somebody who was a strategist in the background, and wasn’t someone who was out front giving a lot of speeches. She wasn’t very good at it at first and, on the whole, she’s gotten better at it. Though I think the ‘60 Minutes’ interview indicates she still has some growing to do.”
DeVos seemed to struggle with certain questions in the “60 Minutes” segment, including those about declining public school performance in Michigan, where she spent years advocating for taxpayer funding for charter and private schools.
Critics say it’s what should be expected from an ideologue with no experience in community-based public schools or higher education. Supporters say DeVos has been unfairly maligned and targeted by the media, which hold her to a different standard than her predecessors.
For late-night comics, she’s a joke, portrayed as a grinning, vacuous caricature on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”
Despite her rocky tenure, President Donald Trump hasn’t publicly indicated that he intends to replace DeVos amid a cabinet reshuffling. Trump has forced out or lost two Cabinet secretaries, his national security adviser and top economic adviser since the beginning of March.
DeVos has been most effective at rolling back regulations — over which she has more control. She has removed rules or guidance from previous administrations on issues such as for-profit institutions and gender bias in schools.
The department last month told state regulators that the federal government, not the states, has the authority to oversee the private companies that service federal college loans, amid a crackdown against the student loan industry in some parts of the country.
“What does this have to do with educating anybody? The fact that she’s such a poor performer in public and can’t even talk about education shouldn’t surprise us, but also just underscores that she’s in her job for other motivations than doing anything constructive about education,” said John Austin, a Democrat who directs the Michigan Economic Center and is former president of the Michigan State Board of Education.
“It exposes the reality of who she is, what she represents and what she cares about ... which has everything to do with these other agendas — how do we loosen up regulations, let for-profit vendors sell education services, so we can make the argument that public schools are failing, and our teachers unions should be dismantled.”
DeVos’ agenda rebuked
Lawmakers last month left out of their massive spending package several initiatives that DeVos championed or put forward in the Education Department’s budget proposal, including a $1 billion grant program to promote school choice.
This year’s package did include $400 million for charter school grants, which was a $58 million or 17 percent increase over the previous year.
Rather than adopting proposed cuts of $9 billion to the agency’s discretionary spending, Congress increased it $3.9 billion — nearly 6 percent over 2017 levels, according to the Committee for Education Funding.
“It’s unfortunate that Congress has decided to continue to make it difficult for students trapped in schools that aren’t working for them to find an option that will,” Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill said by email.
“The secretary is committed to giving students the freedom to find the learning environment that best prepares them for successful lives and careers. She will continue to fight for students and parents, while working within the framework provided by Congress.”
Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, tweeted, “After more than a year on the job, I would have hoped @BetsyDeVosED would have learned by now that her extreme ideas to privatize our nation’s public schools and dismantle the Department of Education do not have support among parents or in Congress.”
The spending bill can be viewed as a rebuke to DeVos’ agenda, said Aaron Pallas, professor of education and sociology at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
“A lot of that could be interpreted as an indication of a lack of confidence that Congress has in her, as well as the fact that education has a very broad complex of stakeholders. Many of the things that were being called for, I think, sparked some mobilization by people who were worried about the impact of certain cuts,” Pallas said.
“Perhaps what the Trump administration in general and she in particular might not appreciate is just how strong the lobbying efforts are on behalf of these programs. ... That creates a natural brake on her ability to do some of these things unilaterally.”
For instance, lawmakers increased funding for the department’s Office of Civil Rights by about $9 million, or nearly 8 percent, after DeVos proposed downsizing it by more than 45 staffers and consolidating regional offices.
Congress included language in the spending package directing the Education Department to maintain the 12 regional offices and add civil rights staff to better investigate complaints.
It’s unclear whether DeVos or her staff lobbied lawmakers for her priorities. At a hearing last month, the head of the powerful House Appropriations Committee said DeVos had not met with him to discuss her agency’s spending plan, and that he’d welcome a visit to his office “to discuss a path forward.”
“It’s hard to believe that people who have been on the job for this long, and they don’t have staff that are understanding how the system works,” Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican, told DeVos.
“No disrespect to you, but certainly I think my colleagues would feel the same way. It is important to connect with the people who pay the bills.”
Major choice victory
Key political appointments have gone unconfirmed by the Senate, including the deputy education secretary. This is also hurting prospects for policy achievements, experts say.
One major win for choice proponents was the federal expansion of tax savings to help pay for K-12 private school expenses — a measure included last year in the Republican tax code overhaul. But education experts said DeVos’ role in the change is uncertain.
“That probably is a win. It’s just very hard to tell if that is something that could be credited to her because I don’t know if she actually said much about that,” Pallas said.
John Schilling, president of the American Federation for Children — which DeVos previously chaired — said expanding the use of so-called 529 savings plans to include K-12 expenses was a “great first step,” as well as the increase in charter school aid.
“Congress and the administration, however, can and must do much more,” Schilling said in an email, calling on lawmakers to fund the administration’s school choice proposals.
Schilling hopes that reviews of states’ K-12 accountability plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act will result in the department approving plans that include “innovative thinking,” such as directing more federal money to charter school start-ups.
The department recently approved Texas’ plan to use some of its Title I funding for low-income children to create charter schools, instead of using the money only to improve existing schools.
The Texas precedent means other states can follow suit, potentially unlocking hundreds of millions for new charter schools across the country, Petrilli said.
No Trump bully pulpit
DeVos hasn’t benefited from Trump articulating a strong policy direction for education because he hasn’t done so.
With no policy direction, it’s tough to be an effective cabinet secretary in any government agency, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
He said much of the mainstream press has used a “very different measuring stick” on DeVos than they would have on Arne Duncan or John King Jr. — education secretaries under President Barack Obama.
“I think she has done better than the popular portrayal might suggest. That said, it’s hard to make the case that conservatives or people who support the administration have a lot to cheer in terms of what’s come out of the U.S. Department of Education,” Hess said.
Janine Kateff of West Bloomfield Township, who chairs the 14th Congressional District Republican Committee, said DeVos has faced opposition largely because she supports Trump.
“It’s a real tough job she’s faced with. She’s just gotta stick with it, and I know she will persevere as long as she can get an audience who will listen,” said Kateff, a former principal in the Willow Run and Rochester Hills schools. “If anyone’s going to do it, it’s her because she’s so well-connected.”
Kateff said she wishes education were a higher priority for lawmakers, suggesting they are preoccupied with defending their turf or with “working against Trump.”
Petrilli was at a loss when asked how DeVos might try to reverse the hostility she’s faced.
“Honestly, I don’t know what she could do at this point. She got off to such a disastrous start and quickly turned into a caricature and punch line,” he said.
“That said, she’s relatively popular among Republicans. But I just don’t think she’s going to be able to win people over very well. I just think that is lost.”