On March 13, 2017, not long after Betsy DeVos was confirmed as President Trump’s education secretary (in the most divisive Senate vote for a Cabinet nominee in U.S. history), she issued a statement that said: “I trust local school leaders to do what’s right for the children they serve.”
Since then, she has said over and over that she believes the federal government should stay out of education policy and leave it to state and local officials. It’s a classic Republican mantra.
There was the July 20, 2017, speech before the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council:
“Now this drives the big-government folks nuts, but it’s important to reiterate: Education is best addressed at the state, local and family levels.”
And the Jan. 28, 2019, speech to the National School Boards Association:
“As you well know, there is no universal school safety plan that will work for every school across our country. A prescriptive approach by Washington would be inappropriate, imprudent, and ineffective. What works in one community wouldn’t be the right answer in another. Local challenges need local solutions.”
And there was the Oct. 4, 2018, letter she released about a new parent guide to the federal K-12 education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which said in part:
″At the core of ESSA is an acknowledgment that Washington doesn’t know best when it comes to educating our nation’s students. Our focus is on returning power to the hands of parents, states and local educators, where it belongs. . . . These new resources will help empower those closest to students with information they need to be informed advocates as education decisions are made at the state and local level.”
And so on and so on.
DeVos is just one of the many “small-government" Republicans who have espoused local control while disparaging the federal government — except, of course, when local control gets in their way.
Republican-led state legislatures have moved to prevent cities, counties or towns from taking steps to, for example, raise the minimum wage or ban fracking. Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, and GOP allies in the legislature are trying to force term limits on perhaps the most local governmental body of them all: school boards.
Republicans in Congress have introduced bills that would overturn local gun-free zones around schools and other public areas. And they have had no problem running roughshod over the local laws of the District, which has home rule but is still subject to the ultimate authority of Congress. They have, at one time or another, sought to overturn local laws in the District regarding gun control, aid in dying and abortion.
DeVos, who famously said in 2015 that "government really sucks, and it doesn’t matter which party is in power,” has nevertheless chosen to use federal power to make policy she supports. She has rolled back Obama-era civil rights protections for LGBTQ students and taken steps to help the controversial for-profit college sector that she champions.
Now, in her passion to expand alternatives to publicly funded school districts, DeVos seems to be changing her “local control” tune when it comes to charter schools.
Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated and are one pillar of the “school choice” movement DeVos has devoted decades to promoting with her career, political clout and family fortune.
Supporters have long hailed charter schools as alternatives to traditional school systems, saying localities could open charters to provide families with choices about where to send their children.
But DeVos just made clear she supports states that want to overrule local decisions made about charter schools. To be precise: If a local government declines a charter application, DeVos supports the state overruling that local decision.
DeVos traveled this month to Tennessee, where she was advocating school choice with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican. Lee wants the charter sector in his state to grow and has proposed creating a state commission that would have the power to override local officials who reject applications for charters. That would give the state the right to tell localities they had to allow a charter school to open — even if it is not wanted.
The idea didn’t originate with Lee; elsewhere in the country, state officials can already override local charter school decisions.
Chalkbeat quoted DeVos as saying this during her visit about that idea:
“I happen to be a proponent of states really taking the lead in almost all of education. Where there are options that are blocked or thwarted, I think Tennessee is wise to consider other opportunities to make sure that students’ needs are ultimately met.”
So much for DeVos and local control.