President Trump listens as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a meeting with parents and teachers at the White House on Feb. 14. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos has been U.S. education secretary for only a few weeks, but already she has shown herself to be exactly what her critics feared. In her brief time running the Education Department she has (among other things):

*insulted teachers at a middle school
*bashed protesters, saying they are “hostile” to change and new ideas
*said she would be fine if the department she runs is shut down
*complained that critics want “to make my life a living hell
*did not participate in the first Twitter chat her department had for teachers on Feb. 21
*suggested schools should be able to compensate for troubles children have at home, such as absent fathers
*had U.S. marshals protect her after protesters blocked her entrance to a D.C. school door
*made a confusing statement about the Common Core State Standards
*made crystal clear that a top priority will be pushing for alternatives to traditional public schools, otherwise known as “school choice.”

And, according to this Washington Post story, while she personally opposed the Trump administration’s rollback of the Obama administration’s federal guidance protecting the right of transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice, she did not say so publicly and was unable to persuade them to leave the guidance in place. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), issued a statement saying that she hoped DeVos “stands strong” and doesn’t “cave to pressure,” but the New York Times reported that she was given the choice by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to go along with the move or resign — and she “relented.” After the rollback, she said the issue was best left to states and local school districts.

The Trump administration on Feb. 22 revoked federal protections for transgender students in public schools who sought to use the restrooms that match their gender identity. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

DeVos’s boss, President Trump, has come to her defense, saying that she has been unfairly attacked and that she will do a great job as education secretary.

And for those who support her prioritizing of school choice, statements such as this, which she gave to Axios, are reassuring: “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.”

To advocates of the public education system, the absence of a mention of traditional public schools in her vision is alarming, though not unexpected. They had fought against her confirmation in the Senate because they believed her years-long advocacy for school choice showed that she wants to privatize the public education system. Though she has denied this, her strong connections to the privatization movement helped spark unprecedented opposition to her nomination around the country, forcing Mike Pence to become the first vice president in history to have to break a tie over a Cabinet nominee.

Now that she is the education secretary, DeVos (who said in 2015 that “government sucks”) expressed ambivalence about the very existence of the department she heads. In the Axios interview, she was asked whether the Education Department should be eliminated, something Trump said in the past he could support, and she replied: “It would be fine with me to have myself worked out of a job, but I’m not sure that — I’m not sure that there will be a champion movement in Congress to do that.”

Actually, there’s already a bill in Congress proposing to do just that, H.R. 899, which says in its entirety: “The Department of Education shall terminate on December 31, 2018.”

Another bill in the U.S. House, H.R. 610, has this as a self-described mission: “To distribute Federal funds for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers for eligible students and to repeal a certain rule relating to nutrition standards in schools.” The bill would, as explained by the Congressional Research Service, repeal the current version of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and only allow the Education Department to award block grants to qualified states. It would have no other powers.

DeVos, a big supporter of vouchers, has said she would enforce the current federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, but it doesn’t sound like she would shed tears if the law — and the department — were made to go away.

Is there enough support in Congress to close the Education Department and create a federal voucher program for America’s schoolchildren?  No, according to people on Capitol Hill who are familiar with the issue, though a pilot federal voucher program is possible. Still, Trump has said he wants to spend $20 billion in federal funds to expand school choice, and the Hill sources said this could come in the form of a federally funded scholarship tax credit program that would be part of a Trump-promised reform of the U.S. tax code.

Vouchers are funded with public dollars and used to pay for tuition at private and religious schools. Scholarship tax credit programs offer lucrative tax credits to individuals and corporations donating to nonprofits that provide money for students to use for tuition at private and religious schools and public schools outside a student’s designated district.

There are now 17 states with programs that offer scholarship tax credits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, including Florida, the state that DeVos has frequently mentioned as a model for the kind of reform she is seeking.

A close ally of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, DeVos has talked up the Sunshine State’s corporate school reform for years, including recently on a Michigan-based radio station, heaping praise on a tax credit program to help students with disabilities, the same program that a 2011 Miami New Times story found had sparked  “cottage industry of fraud.” The Orlando Sentinel just published a story about one school for students with autism that received money from two tax credit programs in Florida that was abruptly closed after its leaders were charged with Medicaid fraud.

DeVos has been a target of critics of the Common Core State Standards, who have seen her as a supporter — along with Bush — even though she has said she is not. Trump has vowed to eliminate the Common Core — even though individual state officials would have to decide to get rid of it because they were the ones who approved it. DeVos told Michigan radio station host Frank Beckmann that the Every Student Succeeds Act effectively does away “with the notion of the Common Core,” Education Week reported. It doesn’t.

In a recent interview with columnist Cal Thomas of the conservative online publication Townhall, DeVos raised another issues that concerns public education advocates — just how much schools and teachers should be held accountable for students who come to class with overwhelming problems, such as hunger, sickness or the effects of living in a violent area. This was the back and forth:

Q. What about family situations that government can’t fix — the absent father, for example?
A. The whole child.
Q. Yes.
A. It’s not an easy or a single answer, but again it goes back to having the power to influence those things at the classroom level.

Address that at the classroom level? Exactly how? What are her expectations of educators?

Meanwhile, DeVos angered teachers at Jefferson Academy in Washington when she told Townhall  that teachers there seemed dedicated and sincere but were in “receive mode.”

“I visited a school on Friday and met with some wonderful, genuine, sincere teachers who pour their heart and soul into their classrooms and their students, and our conversation was not long enough to draw out of them what is limiting them from being even more successful from what they are currently. But I can tell the attitude is more of a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child. You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.”

Jefferson Academy teachers were not amused, and posted tweets blasting her, as others did, including the former chancellor of D.C. schools, Kaya Henderson.

DeVos, no friend to teachers unions, did reach out to the leaders of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers in her first days on the job but that didn’t go smoothly. She spoke to AFT President Randi Weingarten, and the two agreed to visit some schools together, though Weingarten has continued to criticize DeVos’s education views. NEA President Lily Eskelsen García was not in the office and DeVos left a voice message, to which Eskelsen García responded with a letter. Eskelsen García said in a statement:

“Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called me the other day saying we should talk … I’m still struck by the lack of clear answers she gave the public at her Senate [confirmation] hearing. There is no doubt where we stand on issues critical to supporting students and public education, but Americans have a right to know where she stands. So … I sent her a letter, asking for the answers that we didn’t get from her confirmation hearing.”

DeVos, the union says, has not yet responded.

 

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