There are new murmurings in the education world that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos may be ready to give up her job — but don’t hold your breath waiting for the Michigan billionaire to leave.
Ever since DeVos became the first Cabinet nominee in history to need the vice president to break a tie to win Senate confirmation in February, some have speculated she would be a short-timer. Some recent media stories have revived the rumblings, this time contorting a quote from a Politico profile of DeVos from an education expert who said Washington is getting ready for the post-DeVos era but who admits he has no idea what the secretary is really thinking.
That didn’t stop people from speculating. After all, they opined, DeVos would become frustrated when the federal government wouldn’t respond with sufficient alacrity to her direction, Congress wouldn’t rubber-stamp her department budget proposal, and she would find she had no real power over education policy.
Here’s what’s wrong with that.
DeVos, who has been a leader in the movement to expand school choice for decades, has long been a critic of the federal government, famously saying “government sucks.” She is not shy about talking about what she perceives as its flaws, including the slow speed at which it usually operates. She knew going in what she was up against in this regard, and even if the bureaucracy is more stubborn than even she had expected — something she has said — she hasn’t shown herself to be someone easily discouraged. DeVos has worked patiently for decades — repeat, decades — to promote the expansion of charter schools and the growth of programs that use public money to pay for public and private education. She didn’t stop when progress was slow, or nonexistent. She kept going, year after year. It was and is her life’s work.
As for her budget request, DeVos isn’t likely to have expected Congress to bow down to the Trump administration’s education funding requests. In some ways, her education vision doesn’t depend on Congress doing that.
She has worked for many years to change school districts and education policy at the state level, working with various organizations to lobby legislatures to pass school choice laws and programs. She makes it clear in just about every speech that education policy should be done at the local and state level, and she isn’t keen on adding federal programs that would impose new regulations on schools. For example, in a speech at the Washington Policy Center in Seattle last month, she said:
That’s why I wholeheartedly believe real choice cannot be accomplished through a one-size-fits-all federal government mandate!
That might sound counterintuitive to some, coming from the U.S. secretary of education, but after eight months in D.C. — and three decades working in states — I know if Congress tries to mandate “choice,” all we’ll end up with is a mountain of mediocrity, a surge of spending and a bloat of bureaucracy to go along with it.
But D.C. does have an important supporting role to play in the future of choice.
We can amplify the voices of those who only want better for their kids. We can assist states who are working to further empower parents, and we can urge those who haven’t to start.
That is her theory of her job, and it aligns perfectly with her theory of government and school choice. As secretary of education, she has the power to move that agenda along in the way she thinks best.
The notion that she is powerless is a myth.
While she can’t create expensive new programs, DeVos has plenty of power. To reshape the department. To decide which civil rights efforts to pursue. To remake, as she is, federal student loan policy. To further privatize public education. To help diminish the power of the federal government in education and elevate that of the states and localities.
Her department must approve state plans to comply with accountability and other provisions of the K-12 Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to No Child Left Behind. She could, if she wanted, strongly push back against state plans, but the department hasn’t. DeVos is essentially letting the states do what they want. That’s a deliberate act.
As I’ve noted before, she also has the power of the bully pulpit, and that’s not nothing. DeVos’s brand of school “reform” — which critics have derided as attempting to privatize public education — used to be considered extreme. Now, to many in the education world, it isn’t, and she has been a big player in turning the tide. As education secretary, she can go wherever she wants, and, even if she is confronted with protests (as she usually is), she can espouse her vision of education in America. DeVos is also a deeply religious person, and she may see it as her duty to stay on this mission that she has chosen as her life’s work.
So, DeVos getting ready to quit? Don’t hold your breath. She’s frustrated? Quite possibly. She’s powerless? Guess again.