Betsy DeVos has been Secretary of Education for less than three weeks, but her tenure as the custodian of federal education law and policy promises to be as stormy as her confirmation process. According to this summary from The Washington Post, Secretary DeVos managed to, in a few weeks, insult teachers at a middle school, bashed protesters, claimed she would be fine if her department was shut down by Congress, complained about critics wanting to “make her life a living hell,” did not participate in a scheduled Twitter chat for teachers, suggested that schools are supposed to be able to compensate for all home problems, needed U.S. marshals to protect her during a school visit, demonstrated little understanding of the Common Core State Standards, and signaled her number one priority is any form of schooling other than traditional public schools.
Additionally, insider accounts says that DeVos was opposed to the immediate roll back of Obama administration guidelines protecting transgender students, but she was bullied by Attorney General Jeff Sessions into supporting the decision. In an interview with Axios, Secretary DeVos confirmed that she would not mind if Congress put her out of work by ending the department, and she confirmed her enthusiasm for different “models” of education:
“I expect there will be more public charter schools. I expect there will be more private schools. I expect there will be more virtual schools. I expect there will be more schools of any kind that haven’t even been invented yet.”
It was in an interview with columnist Cal Thomas that DeVos complained about protesters and where she suggested that lack of “character education” was partially to blame for lagging achievement in schools. In her appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference this week, she joked that she was “the first person” to tell Senator Bernie Sanders that there was “no such thing as free lunch” – despite the ironic fact that federal law does actually provide free lunches for millions of public school students – and she accused the American Professoriate of more or less brainwashing our students.
It is therefore understandable if advocates for American public education are terrified. Betsy DeVos is absolutely, almost religiously, dedicated to “disrupting” the public school system, and her record of political advocacy shows that she has little regard for the impacts of her preferred reforms and sees them as a goal unto themselves. With the force of federal education law and spending behind her, and with a Congress eager to abet her efforts, there is a great deal of disruption that she can manage. Stories from New Orleans and Detroit as well as other cities where charters and privatization have had significant impact with little oversight should serve as cautionary tales for teachers, parents, and students alike: there will be a full frontal assault on the very assumption that compulsory education is a public good serving any public function at all.
But it is also very likely going to fail. That isn’t to say that there will not be a lot of disruption; there will be. And that is not to say that a lot of schools and classrooms will not become more uncertain and stressful places; that will happen. But it is to say that the public school system in America is a lot more resilient than someone like Betsy DeVos, who called it “a closed system, a closed industry, a closed market…. a monopoly, a dead end,” can understand. Like Arne Duncan before her, I strongly suspect that Secretary DeVos will struggle to coordinate influence across a vast and diffuse education system that has overlapping and competing stakeholders unwilling to simply take orders and march in unison towards one goal. I see three potential stumbling blocks that will ultimately limit what DeVos is able to accomplish:
1. Her Reach Will Exceed Her Grasp
Congressional Republicans may very well give Betsy DeVos what she has always dreamed of: an opportunity to shovel huge swaths of American education over to private service providers. Steve King of Iowa has introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would essentially gut the federal role in public education. H.R. 610, which has only been referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce so far, is written to “distribute Federal funds for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers” and to “repeal a certain rule relating to nutritional standards in schools (because OF COURSE it does)”. Representative King and his co-sponsors propose to eliminate the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and to send all federal funds to states as block grants that can be used for eligible students to attend any private school or for families that choose to home school. States will only receive this money if they comply with voucher program requirements and if they make it “lawful” for any parents to enroll their child in any public or private school or to home school them. For added measure, Representative King appears intent to do away with former First Lady Michelle Obama’s signature initiative on children’s health by doing away with nutritional guidance on school lunches…I’m guessing the makers of sawdust based breakfast cereals and lunch “meats” have been hurting too much.
This would gut the federal role in assisting states and communities to provide fair and equitable education for all students, reducing Washington’s role to handing out bundles of coupons states would distribute to parents to pass through to private education operators. In any normal political climate, I would assume that the bill was dead on arrival, but given current leadership of the House of Representatives, Steve King’s popularity with the voters that put Donald Trump in office, and the leadership in the Executive Branch, I would not bet against some version of this bill making it to the floor of the House. Even if H.R. 610 fails to make it through, other ideas are floating in Congress, such as a suggestion from the “School Choice Caucus” that some or all of the $15 billion spent on Title I could be turned into a school choice fund. Knowing DeVos’ zeal for school vouchers, it is easy to imagine her applying leverage from a bill like that or even applying leverage to existing federal funds to push states into opening more and more school choice schemes even without Steve King’s bill.
A recent history lesson would do Secretary DeVos some good if she were inclined to learn lessons about reaching too far too fast in federal education. For example, Bill Gates probably thought he had it all lined up: He had a Secretary of Education open to his technocratic approach to education reform. He had the National Governors Association on board with adopting standards across the states. He had the people he liked and who had convinced him to back the project writing the standards. He would soon have the federal government using a grant competition and waivers to encourage states to adopt those standards, to sign up for shared standardized exams, and to use test score data to rate teacher effectiveness. In short order, the federal government would offer massive grants to multi-state testing consortia to design the first cross-state accountability exams. To wrap it all up with a bow, he had 100s of millions of dollars he was willing to pump into the effort.
And we all know how that turned out.
Fans of the Common Core and the associated testing and teacher evaluations would probably like to chalk up all resistance to the same forces that reflexively assaulted anything done by President Obama, and to be sure, if you go to Twitter and searched #commiecore you will see what they mean. But that is only explanatory to a degree. A lot of the backlash to the reform efforts that rolled into schools was based on a massively disruptive set of interconnected policies. Common standards informed high stakes assessments that refocused the curriculum, and teacher evaluations tied to student growth on those exams meant no classroom could avoid seeing test scores as goals in and of themselves. Even if the standards themselves were universally recognized as high quality – and they were not – driving disruptive reforms into nearly every classroom in the country so quickly and with so little public discussion about what was happening and why was guaranteed to foment backlash. Teachers had little to no time to learn about and understand the standards or to develop their own critiques. Quality materials to support the new standards were in short supply. Test based incentives increased urgency and narrowed teaching options. Parents turned around to discover that people were trying to rejigger most of the country’s schools without bothering to talk to them about it. And when they talked about their frustration in public, the Secretary of Education said they were “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”
This is the kind of disrespect and dismissal that has been sadly common place for parents of color for decades now. Those communities frequently have control of their schools taken away from them by distant state governments, have suffered the consequences of No Child Left Behind which labeled their schools failures without doing anything substantive to help them, and then made them choose between charter schools that are well funded but might not accommodate their children and public schools that are underfunded and neglected. But that level of being dictated to and told to like it or go pound sand is not typical in suburban schools whose parents both expect and demand access to local decision makers and who believe their schools were serving their needs before any of this arrived. That is not the kind of environment you “disrupt” without creating massive backlash.
Today, Common Core is not exactly dead, but it also isn’t getting invited to any parties. Formerly supportive governors dance away from the standards (even if they do little to change them), while one of the testing consortia struggles to retain the few remaining states. While variations and remnants of this effort are likely to survive, the technocrats’ dream of a coordinated system of state standards, assessments, and teacher evaluations is pretty much off the table.
Secretary DeVos looks to be on a similar path, and Congress is very likely to give her a pool of money to use to her heart’s content which, if history is any judge, is to set up as many alternatives to public schools as she can without regard to their quality or impact on district schools. If even a significant portion of Title I money is turned into a voucher program, DeVos will have leverage on every state to increase school choice policies dramatically, even in places that receive only small amounts of Title I funding. Imagine the reaction of a community that finds out that pep band has been canceled to cover the transportation costs of children traveling to parochial schools in neighboring districts and you have some idea of how many Congressional Republicans will just stop meeting with constituents altogether. Like Arne Duncan before her, Betsy DeVos is in a hurry, and, having pushed for unregulated privatization and vouchers for decades regardless of what people actually want, it is impossible to imagine that she will not reach for whatever she can as fast as she can – with predictable consequences. My biggest fear is not that Secretary DeVos will be able to bend the entire school system to her privatized will but that the influential communities will beat back her efforts and call it a day, forgetting that what offended them has been the unjust norm for families of color for years.
2. See You In Court
Trump’s administration landed in court, on the losing side, almost immediately after implementing its travel ban, and there is no reason to believe that lawsuits won’t be filed almost immediately if Secretary DeVos moves on her favored policies. Two legal fronts will be ripe for action – First Amendment grounds and state constitutional grounds.
Betsy DeVos loves vouchers. She and her family tried to get Michigan to adopt them in 2000, only to face overwhelming opposition followed by her husband’s failed bid for governor. Her tactic following that loss was to systematically buy the political system in Michigan and settle for unleashing a chaotic flood of unregulated charter schools on the state. The DeVos family also made efforts to blur the boundaries between church and state, and one of her ultimate goals is to use public money to advance “God’s Kingdom” by helping religious education:
But the DeVoses’ foundation giving shows the couple’s clearest preference is for Christian private schools. In a 2013 interview with Philanthropy magazine, Betsy DeVos said that while charters are “a very valid choice,” they “take a while to start up and get operating. Meanwhile, there are very good non-public schools, hanging on by a shoestring, that can begin taking students today.” From 1999 to 2014, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation gave out $2.39 million to the Grand Rapids Christian High School Association, $652,000 to the Ada Christian School, and $458,000 to Holland Christian Schools. All told, their foundation contributed $8.6 million to private religious schools—a reflection of the DeVoses’ lifelong dedication to building “God’s kingdom” through education.
It would be out of her character to resist funneling federal dollars set aside for school vouchers to religious schools. The effort might be slow at first, getting the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, but even a small, “experimental” voucher program for religious education would be an immediate First Amendment case arguing that the federal government is forbidden from “establishing” religion.
Another, more interesting front, would be lawsuits filed in both state and federal courts arguing that DeVos led reform efforts would violate state constitutions. While the federal role in public education is completely undefined in the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions are full of language obligating state governments’ support of public schools. The language varies, but there are common themes such as states needing to establish “thorough and efficient” school systems, setting up systems that are “general” and “free”, securing “the people the advantages and opportunities of education,” and even ringing endorsements of public schools as promoters of democracy.
Betsy DeVos’ favorite school reforms arguably violate all of those principles, and efforts to impose them nationally could force states to violate their own constitutions. There is nothing “thorough and efficient” about the chaotic system of unregulated charter schools that DeVos’ advocacy supports in Detroit. DeVos mentioned expanding virtual school choice options, but there is mounting evidence that such schools perform poorly and disproportionately enroll lower income students – expanding them would hardly meet state’s constitutional obligations. There is plenty of evidence by now on the impact of school vouchers on school quality, but that evidence does not support expanding them. Some state voucher programs, such as Indiana’s under Mike Pence, contribute to further segregation in public schools, violating the notion of schools as instruments of democracy:
According to data from the state, today more than 60 percent of the voucher students in Indiana are white, and more than half of them have never even attended any public school, much less a failing one. Some of the fastest growth in voucher use has occurred in some of the state’s most affluent suburbs. The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a Chicago-based think tank, recently concluded that because white children’s participation in the voucher program dwarfed the next largest racial group by 44 points, the vouchers were effectively helping to resegregate public schools.
Squaring outcomes like these with the lofty language of various state constitutional obligations for public education is going to be difficult, and a DeVos led effort to make her style of unregulated, for-profit charter and virtual charter schools coupled with unregulated school vouchers funneling public cash to private and religious schools is not going to go unchallenged in court.
3. Good Help Is Hard To Find
Betsy DeVos has never had a real job in her life. She was born into money, and married into more money. She is exceptionally skilled at leveraging that fortune to influence politicians to do what she wants them to do, but that is not a skill set that allows you to run an agency with 4,400 direct employees and an annual budget of $68 billion. Like every Cabinet Secretary, even those with vastly more experience than she has, Betsy DeVos is going to need help to implement much of anything.
Unfortunately for DeVos – and perhaps fortunately for our nation’s schools – she reports to a boss who loves chaos and sees confusion as his tool to dominate others. Further, the Trump White House is demanding complete loyalty to Trump from all appointees, gumming up the works of finding qualified deputies and assistants to keep the U.S. Department of Education running. This is no easy task considering that Republicans with actual experience running government programs lined up to vocally oppose Trump during the election, and school choice Democrats who might have been willing to work for, say, a President Kasich or Bush wouldn’t touch this administration with 10,000 foot pole. Like Cabinet appointees in the State, Defense, and Treasury departments, Betsy DeVos is not on track to have a full staff any time soon.
This isn’t necessarily bad. Without a staff of knowledgeable and skilled deputy and assistant secretaries able to implement new programs and revise existing regulations, the department will be on cruise control as the non-political employees keep the day to day operations working without clear directions to change anything. In the case of a DOE tasked with making Betsy DeVos’ vision of American public education a reality, incompetence is actually our friend.
The upcoming ride will be rough, but, if everyone remains vigilant and vocal, DeVos is going to fail.