Six months in, several writers have set out to remind us who Betsy DeVos is and to consider where the U.S. Department of Education stands under her leadership.
Writing in the U.K. for The Guardian, David Smith recalls: “(I)t is DeVos, America’s 11th education secretary, who is viewed by many… as its most dangerous and destructive since the post was created by Jimmy Carter in 1979. DeVos, a devout Christian, stands accused of quietly privatising schools, rescinding discrimination guidelines and neutering her own civil rights office… DeVos—who once called traditional public school districts a ‘dead end’—is accused of defunding and destabilising public education in Michigan by bankrolling school choice initiatives. Now… she is trying to apply the same ideas to the nation, championing privately run, publicly funded charter schools and voucher programmes that enable families to take tax dollars from the public education system to the private sector.”
And, in a sparkling New York Magazine profile, Lisa Miller sums up the impact of Betsy DeVos and her family—longtime far-right activists and philanthropists behind right-wing causes. First there is the family’s role in Michigan education politics: “Detroit now has a greater percentage of kids in charters than any city in the country except New Orleans. Eighty percent of those charters are for-profit. The number of charter schools is growing while the number of students in Detroit continues to shrink, so schools pursue kids like retailers on sale days, with radio ads and flyers and promises of high-end gifts. Still, only 10 percent of Detroit’s graduating seniors are reading at a college level, and the charter schools perform better than or as well as the district schools only about half the time. When last summer a bipartisan group of concerned Detroiters tried to introduce some accountability and performance standards to the system, GLEP stepped in and killed the measure.” GLEP is the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-privatization lobbying group founded and funded by Betsy and Dick DeVos.
Miller neatly captures who Betsy DeVos is: “Trump has hired other oligarchs to run his federal agencies, and he has staffed the Executive branch with people who, like DeVos, might have been called ‘lobbyists’ in former lives. But DeVos is a hybrid of the two. Fortified by great wealth and strong religion in the shelter of a monochromatic community, she has throughout her life single-mindedly used that wealth to advance her educational agenda… She was raised to believe she knew exactly what was right. And for decades, this certainty has propelled her ever forward, always with her singular goal in mind. But what’s right in the bubble in which she has always lived doesn’t translate on YouTube, or in Cabinet meetings, or on the battlefield of public schools, where stakeholders have been waging vengeful politics for years. This is what those advocates who had admired the zeal she brought to their cause didn’t have the foresight to grasp. Out of Michigan, without her checkbook, DeVos is like a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.” Miller writes that Betsy DeVos’s long-time friends and allies—Campbell Brown, Jeb Bush, Eva Moskowitz—“have gone quiet, evading the opportunity to offer further praise.”
Examining DeVos’s record earlier this month, this blog concluded that DeVos has accomplished far less than everyone feared, although there is cause for concern that DeVos is quietly neutralizing the department’s Office of Civil Rights and delaying rules to protect college students who have taken out loans to attend unscrupulous for-profit colleges. But as far as privatization of K-12 school education goes? Not much progress. Reporters who cover these issues in-depth seem to agree with this assessment.
Alyson Klein, Education Week‘s top reporter following federal policy describes a federal department that has struggled since DeVos took over: “(M)any in the education community were terrified the billionaire school choice advocate would quickly use her new perch to privatize education and run roughshod over traditional public schools. Maybe they shouldn’t have been quite so worried. Nearly six months into her new job, a politically hamstrung DeVos is having a tough time getting her agenda off the ground.”
Klein notes that a House budget bill neglects to fund the very dangerous idea of making Title I portable, a hot issue ultimately rejected by Congress when the federal education law was reauthorized in 2015: “Earlier this month, the House panel charged with overseeing education funding snubbed DeVos’s most important asks so far: using an education research program to push school vouchers, and allowing Title I dollars to follow students to the school of their choice.”
And, Klein reports, “DeVos may not have better luck on the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the education chairman said. ‘Not all Republicans support federal dollars for vouchers… I think school choice advocates, and I’m one of them, have made a lot more progress state-by-state and community-by-community than in Washington I think it’s more difficult here.'”
What about tuition tax credits, the other form of vouchers DeVos has extolled? Klein explains: “The Trump administration has also hinted that it will pitch a federal tax credit scholarship, which would allow individuals and corporations to get a tax break for donating to scholarship-granting organizations. But that plan, which could be attached to a broader effort at overhauling the tax code, has yet to be rolled out. And time is running short to get it over the finish line this year… One potential stumbling block to getting a tax credit initiative off the runway: There aren’t yet enough top-level political appointees at the agency to think through the policy and sell it on Capitol Hill. DeVos remains the only official at the department who has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.”
Michael Stratford at POLITICO describes the staffing delay: “EDUCATION DEPARTMENT HIRING HITS A WALL: The task of staffing the Education Department with fresh political faces appears to have hit a wall. Dozens of individuals have dropped out, frustrated by the drawn-out, rigorous hiring process. Those in the pipeline are wondering what’s taking so long. And fewer folks are throwing their hats in the ring, doubting whether the Trump administration’s pledge to dramatically expand private school choice options for working class families will ultimately go anywhere… A lack of senior political hires has failed to attract other talent, compounding the problem…. And the political hires now at the Education Department have way too much on their plate. President Donald Trump has only formally nominated two individuals for politically appointed, Senate-confirmable positions…”
Stratford draws this conclusion: “Amid the chaos, the Hill doesn’t seem interested in funding the president’s school choice budget proposals and it’s unclear if the White House will get behind a plan to expand private school choice through tax reform—a huge lift for Congress and the administration. Folks who support private school choice are ‘increasingly pessimistic’… (a) source said. ‘There still seems to be people in the pipeline that could get through. But it seems like no one new is getting in line.'”
Does this mean that advocates for strengthening the public schools can let up? Not at all. As long as Betsy DeVos remains unpopular with the public and with members of Congress, it will be harder for her to undermine public education. It is our job to continue—relentlessly—to define the importance of the public schools, which are required by law to serve all children, meet their particular needs, and protect their rights. We must also take Sen. Lamar Alexander’s observation seriously: vouchers and tuition tax credits have had more success in state legislatures than in Congress. ALEC model laws are being introduced in statehouses across the country and must be carefully tracked and opposed.