Education Week - February 14, 2018 - 20
At Year One, DeVos Views Her Outsider Status as an 'Asset'
reflects on her tenure
A year ago, as U.S. Secretary of
Education Betsy DeVos squeaked
through a historically tough confirmation process, a lot was made of
the fact that she was the first education secretary who hadn't worked
professionally in a school or college.
So one year in, has that been an
asset or a liability?
"I frankly think it's been an asset.
I don't know what can't be done,"
DeVos told reporters last week. "And
I come in with fresh eyes around all
of these issues, and I think that
questioning the way things have
been done and being able to look at
things from a different perspective
is a good thing."
Does she think she was more influential in pushing her favorite policy-school choice-as an outsider
running the American Federation
for Children, an advocacy organization, or in her current role, heading
up the Education Department?
DeVos indicated that she recognizes that, as secretary, she's part
of a broader political system that includes Congress. And folks on Capitol Hill don't always do everything
she'd ideally like them to do.
"Clearly, if I could snap my fingers and things would happen with
By Alyson Klein
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos says she's brought a fresh set of
eyes to policy issues in her first year as head of the department.
that body up there, there's lots of
things that I would tell them to
do," she said. "Not only around
choice. Lots of things. But ... there
hasn't been a secretary that has
talked about empowering parents
and giving them choices before,
and I think that's a huge benefit
and, frankly, a privilege to do. To
try to be a voice for many parents
who don't have voices."
To be sure, other secretaries have
also talked about alternatives to
traditional public schooling. Arne
Duncan was a fan of charters, and
Margaret Spellings championed tutoring and public school choice.
The current secretary believes
that most of the action on choice
won't take place in Washington,
"The bulk of that is going to happen in state legislatures and [with]
governors across this country," she
said. "And whatever is going to happen at the federal level is going to
be complementary to and additional
to what happens at the state level."
DeVos' biggest irritation? She's not
too happy that the Senate has been
slow to confirm President Donald
Trump's nominees for key positions
at her department.
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"It really has been going on much
too long. [There's] a very, very high
level of frustration around that,"
she said. "We have many qualified,
capable individuals waiting to come
and contribute here, and they're just
messing around at that building on
Approvals have yet to occur for
Mick Zais, the president's pick for
deputy secretary; Jim Blew, who is
up for assistant secretary of planning, evaluation, and policy analysis; Ken Marcus, the nominee for
assistant secretary of the office
for civil rights; Frank Brogan, the
nominee for assistant secretary of
elementary and secondary education; and Carlos Muñiz, the nominee
for general counsel.
Sluggish confirmation of political appointees is not unique to
the Trump era. By the end of the
Obama administration, an "acting"
aide filled nearly every core role at
the department because a Republican-controlled Congress was dragging its feet on approving nominations.
And back in 2007, it took about
eight months for Bill Evers, President George W. Bush's nominee for
assistant secretary of planning,
evaluation, and policy analysis, to
get the green light from a Democratically-controlled Congress.
By contrast, Jim Blew, Trump's
nominee for that same position, has
been waiting about four months to
get the all-clear. Nominations for
Zais, Marcus, and Brogan have been
pending a bit less than that. Muñiz
has had the longest wait, at more
than 10 months.
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20 | EDUCATION WEEK | February 14, 2018 | www.edweek.org
DeVos said she's proud of the work
she's done on deregulation. The secretary scrapped more than a hundred pieces of guidance that she
said were outdated or duplicative.
"Some of the most important work
we've done in this first year has
been around the area of overreach
and rolling back the extended footprint of this department to a significant extent," she said.
But DeVos wasn't ready to provide
an update on whether she'd be eliminating Obama-era guidance pushing school officials to ensure that
their discipline policies don't have a
disparate impact on students from
certain racial and ethnic groups.
Nor did she get into specifics on
the state of play when it comes to
another regulatory issue on her
plate. DeVos is contemplating delaying for two years an Obama-era
rule that would require states to use
a standardized approach to figuring
out if they have too many minority
students in special education, or if
they're punishing them or putting
them in restrictive settings more
than white students.
"The re-examination of those two
regulations is really high up on our
work list, and we are certainly looking very closely at both of those.
We've had a lot of feedback from
states and those involved in these
issues on the front lines to raise
concerns over the implementation
as originally intended," DeVos said.
"I think key in all of this is to stay
focused on the fact that every student is an individual. That has ultimately been my approach to all of
The Every Student Succeeds
Act's Democratic architects-Sen.
Patty Murray of Washington and
Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia-
have argued that DeVos is rubberstamping state ESSA plans, even if
they flout the law. And they've said
she's allowing states to water down
protections for vulnerable student
groups, such as English-language
learners and students in special
DeVos is supposed to meet with
both of them soon, as well as the two
Republican education committee
chairpeople, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Rep. Virginia
Foxx of North Carolina.
The secretary contends, though,
that she's not letting states slide.
"I've said frequently, and I'll say
it again, I'm only approving plans
that comport with the law. And I'm
encouraging anyone who's been
critical of me and/or the department on approval of plans, that
they in some way don't follow the
law, I want to know where that's
falling short and where is that exactly the case. And I haven't really
had any specific examples brought
to our attention yet."
Back in September, DeVos went
on a seven-state tour to highlight
schools she said are thinking outside the box. Since then, she has
been giving speeches encouraging
educators to reconsider everything
from seat time to how learning is
delivered. So can any big policy initiatives be expected to help schools
do this rethinking?
She sees ESSA as one lever.
"I think one of the most important
things we can do is really encourage-with the implementation of
ESSA state plans-states to actually push a lot of flexibility and autonomy down to the local level, for
states to foster the kind of creativity
and innovation we really need to see
when it comes to changing the way
we help kids learn," DeVos said.
Trump may have pitched a $20
billion voucher program on the campaign trail. But so far, school choice
hasn't caught fire in Congress.
Lawmakers rejected the president's
proposal for a federal voucher program and for allowing some federal
money to follow students to the public school of their choice.
DeVos didn't tip her hand on her
next big choice ask.
But she called a change in the
recent tax-overhaul legislation to
allow parents to use 529 collegesavings plans for K-12 tuition a
"very, very significant opportunity
and step forward for empowering
parents with choices."
She also pointed to the renewal of
the voucher program in the District
of Columbia as another "big win. ...
We're going to be pushing on multiple fronts to empower parents."