Education Week - October 11, 2017 - 13
No Easy Perch
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Dougal Brownlie/The Gazette via AP
struction that students need.
Just last month, DeVos took her
most high-profile trip yet, swinging
through six states to visit private and
both traditional and charter public
schools that offer students' unique
learning experiences. The tour was a
chance to "really highlight and expose
to more people the beauty of options
and choices and to continue to make
the case that all parents, not only ones
that have the economic means, should
be able to have a decisionmaking
power to make some of those choices,"
DeVos said in her interview.
But Maria Ferguson, who served
as the director of communications
and outreach services at the Education Department during the Clinton
administration, said the secretary
has a long way to go in getting educators to take her seriously.
"She came into office with guns
blasting public education. ... I don't
think people forget that," said Ferguson, who is now the president
of the Center on Education Policy,
a research and advocacy organization that is affiliated with George
Washington University. "You earn
the bully pulpit, you don't just get
to have it. ... People have to believe
you're there for the right reasons. I
don't think people trust her."
Still, with DeVos' school choice
agenda stalled on Capitol Hill, her
ability to command attention is one of
few levers she has left, said Chester E.
Finn, who worked at the department
under President Ronald Reagan and
is now a distinguished senior fellow at
the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
"I think a perfectly plausible
way to foster choice is to celebrate
schools that do it well and encourage states to do more of it," he said.
"But I also don't think she has very
many alternatives right now."
Public messaging holds a particular allure for GOP education secretaries, who have ideas they want to
see take root but aren't wild about
creating a spate of new programs,
Finn said. And it can yield results.
Terrel H. Bell, Reagan's first education secretary, helped launch a
national dialogue on the need to improve America's schools by commissioning the landmark 1983 report "A
Nation at Risk." Lamar Alexander,
who was President George H.W.
Bush's second education secretary
and now leads the Senate education
committee, barnstormed the country
as secretary, urging districts to sign
on to a set of educational goals developed with the nation's governors
More recently, President Barack
Obama's second education secretary,
John B. King Jr., encouraged states to
include college readiness and chronic
absenteeism in their accountability
plans for the Every Student Succeeds
Act-and the vast majority took his
advice. And Obama's first secretary,
Arne Duncan, took every opportunity
he could to draw attention to the im-
pact of gun violence on children.
In some respects, DeVos may be
in an even better position to use her
platform as secretary to get attention. After all, she commands more
media focus than almost all of her
"Everywhere she goes, she gets
coverage," said Matt Frendewey,
who worked on communications
for DeVos at both the Education
Department and at the American
Federation for Children, the school
choice advocacy organization she
chaired before becoming secretary.
"Every time she raises a point, it's
discussed and debated." That's
helped open up a conversation on
school choice, he said.
But he acknowledged the secretary is fighting a polarized climate.
"The dynamic is no longer about
civil debate," he said. "It manifests
itself in this 'resist' mentality. As in,
'I'm not going to debate why a policy
is good or bad, I'm going to resist it.' "
To be sure, some of DeVos' early
stumbles haven't helped matters.
After her first visit to a public school
in the District of Columbia, for example, she said the teachers there
were in "receive mode," prompting
an angry response on Twitter. And
she put out a statement saying that
historically black colleges and universities were "pioneers" of choice,
ignoring their Jim Crow roots.
Other comments-like appearing to compare public schools to
old-fashioned taxis and schools of
choice to Uber-have continued to
rub people the wrong way.
At least initially, DeVos, "tended
to focus more negative than positive
messages," said Grover J. "Russ"
Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the
Brookings Institution, who served
as the director of the Institute of
Education Sciences during the
George W. Bush administration. "I
think she'd be well advised to catch
the system when it's being good and
draw attention to it." And he suggested she keep showing up. "She
needs to be out and about so people
get tired of protesting her."
At the same time, DeVos has to
contend with a level of vitriol that
no other education secretary has encountered-and it isn't just confined
to her public appearances.
A sampling of comments on
DeVos' Instagram feed, responding
to a picture of a sunset over a high
school football field: "Evil wench I
hope you burn in hell"; "You are a
vile human being and should be
ashamed"; "Everyone hates you
go away!" "You are a cancer to our
educational institutions"; "You are
repugnant and a disgrace."
That kind of bile makes DeVos "look
sympathetic" by comparison, said
Mark Hlavacik, an assistant professor of communication studies at the
University of North Texas in Denton
and the author of Assigning Blame:
The Rhetoric of Education Reform.
But he added that DeVos' critics
didn't exactly invent trolling someone
online-and her boss, President Don-
Protesters confront U.S.
Secretary of Education Betsy
DeVos, below, at her speech
at Harvard University's
Kennedy School of
Government. DeVos did not
interrupt her speech to
address the protesters, but
later took pointed questions
from the audience.
ald Trump, has elevated it to an art
form. "The administration she works
for has authorized this kind of discourse," Hlavacik said, even though
he doesn't think that absolves DeVos'
most antagonistic detractors.
Some have wondered if sexism is
at play in the response to DeVos.
After all, Trump's male cabinet
members don't seem to be the target
of as many personal attacks.
Hlavacik agrees, but thinks that's
not the whole story.
"Is there sexism? Yes," he said. "It's
also the same sexism that made it OK
[for Trump] to call [Democratic presidential contender] Hillary Clinton a
'nasty woman' and still get elected."
And DeVos has advantages that many
people do not, he added. "That DeVos
is a target of sexism doesn't wipe away
the other privileges she's had that are
part of how she became secretary of
education," Hlavacik said. "Most people aren't as wealthy as she is. She is
a white woman. That matters."
Schools that host DeVos sometimes
feel the need to do their own politicking ahead of the secretary's visit.
Kory Gallagher, the head of school
at Kansas City Academy, a small private school in Missouri that DeVos
stopped by on her recent tour, said
there was a "small but vocal minority who felt the offer to visit should
The school serves a highly diverse
population, including a number of
transgender students who were stung
by the administration's decision to
rescind Obama-era guidance permitting students to use the restroom that
matches their gender identity.
"We have this educational philosophy that's really progressive," Gallagher said. "For some of our students,
what the Trump administration represents seems to be a threat to the
way we live our lives every day."
Gallagher ultimately helped the
school community accept DeVos' visit
in the spirit of "communication and
DeVos was met by more than 150
protestors outside the academy. The
local television reports focused mostly
on that-but radio and print media
showcased the school, Gallagher said.
Some reporters who had been covering education in Missouri for years
told him they didn't know about the
decades-old academy until DeVos'
Gallagher liked that DeVos seemed
genuinely interested in getting to
know his students, even when the
cameras weren't rolling. "Sometimes,
she's cast as being evil. I have a hard
time seeing her as evil after watching
her interact" with the school. That
doesn't mean he thinks she's on the
right track from a policy perspective.
"Some of her solutions, I think, leave
something to be desired," he said.
And that's a big part of the problem, said Pedro Noguera, a professor
of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose research
focuses on how schools are influenced
by social and economic conditions.
If she wants to change hearts and
minds, DeVos needs to move off choice
and talk about one of the "motherhood
and apple pie" issues in K-12-STEM
education, he said, referring to science,
technology, engineering, and math, or
maybe early childhood-and back it
up with policy.
"If she were to exercise leadership on one of those issues, it could
help in winning some people over
or at least getting them to back off,"
But for now, "I feel like people know
who she is and what she's about, and
[they think] she does have a track
record and it's not good for public
school. I think that's what the protests are about."
EDUCATION WEEK | October 11, 2017 | www.edweek.org | 13