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Jacques: DeVos grades herself ‘solid B+ to A-’

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

This month marks the first full year that Michigan native Betsy DeVos has held her job as U.S. education secretary.

Her opponents still can’t believe that she has the role. Just last week, leaders of the top teachers unions attempted to drop off 80,000 “report cards” for DeVos, in a publicity stunt. No surprise — she got mostly “F”s.

But DeVos gives herself a much better grade.

“I would say a solid B+ to an A-,” she told me in an interview this week, which covered the highlights of the past year and where she wants to the take the department in 2018. “There’s room for improvement.”

If the unions actually listened to what she has to say, they may find they agree with more of her positions than they assume. DeVos’ “doctrine” is all about returning control to local schools and classroom teachers, who are best suited to know what their students need. Most teachers would probably concur. But they can’t get past her commitment to being a cheerleader for school choice — something she’s doubling down on in the coming year.

DeVos is also focused on tangible changes she can make. She says cutting through the federal bureaucracy is one of the more challenging (and frustrating) parts of her job, but it’s one she finds of utmost importance. And it’s also one of the ways she can impart the most impact.

“There were a lot of things we needed to tackle to roll back the overreach of this department,” DeVos says. “We want to make sure where we end up is well thought out and right for the parties involved and right for taxpayers.”

That includes reducing regulations across the Department of Education, from what it requires at the classroom level to higher education guidelines. Since its inception in 1980, the department has grown to roughly 4,000 employees, including 150 political appointees.

DeVos is currently working out a restructuring plan, which will result in a smaller, more efficient department. She says she and President Trump agree with an approach that honors federalism and gives states back much more oversight of how schools are run. And she wants to encourage creativity at the classroom level.

“Part of the president’s directive is a top down review of every federal agency,” she says. “We are in that process now. As you can imagine it is a much more lengthy and cumbersome process than I may like to see, but we have made some good progress in that area, and we are working on a reorganization plan that will actually make some of the operations in the department much more open and much more aligned with the goal of empowering local teachers and schools to do their thing better.”

Some other highlights:

On school choice: DeVos says she’s committed to encouraging developments at the state level to expand opportunities for families.

“We have fundamentally shifted the debate around education freedom and school choice,” she says. “There is ample opportunity to continue to encourage states to lead in this regard and governors and legislatures are taking steps. There are multiple states where either one chamber or another has legislation they advanced or passed and governors who are trying to expand programs that have already been initiated or start new ones.

“My ability to continue to really encourage and keep moving along in those paths is an important one. I think we will have an opportunity to talk about steps at the federal level that will respect federalism and ultimately complement and come alongside what states are already doing or are poised to do.”

On Title IX reforms to campus sexual assault investigations: In September, DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidance to universities that effectively harmed the due process rights of accused students. She’s also committed to investigating what went wrong at Michigan State University in the abuse of several hundred young women by staff doctor Larry Nassar. Proposed new Title IX guidance is expected this spring.

“I think part of it is making sure we progress through this rule-making well,” DeVos says. “And that we are asking all the right questions and getting the right input from all those involved, from students who have been accused and those who have been survivors. We need to make sure the process and the framework is right and fair for all those involved. And one that’s going to promote transparency around the process itself. This is something that I take very seriously.”

What DeVos sees as her mission:

“I think that continuing to challenge all of education on rethinking how we approach and how we serve students best and how we recognize that students are individuals and how we give them the opportunity to pursue the education and learning that is right for them — and that stokes their curiosity instead of sucks it out of them,” she says.

“From a big-picture perspective, that is a really important possible contribution to make.”


Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques