DeVos charges ahead on school choice

DeVos charges ahead on school choice
© Greg Nash

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has become an ardent foot soldier for President Trump's deregulatory agenda while aggressively pushing her own school choice initiatives.

The billionaire businesswoman was one of Trump’s most controversial Cabinet selections, with Democrats and liberal groups assailing her lack of experience in public schools and her years at the helm of an organization that promoted school privatization.

The criticism hasn’t faded, but DeVos is charging ahead.

She’s spent her first six months in office following Trump’s orders to cut regulatory red tape while making the case that charter schools and private school vouchers are the answer to the nation’s educational woes. 

"Our nation’s commitment is to provide a quality education to every child to serve the public, common good. Accordingly, we must shift the paradigm to think of education funding as investments made in individual children, not in institutions or buildings," DeVos said in March, according to prepared remarks for a speech at the Brookings Institution. 

But her message isn’t swaying opponents, who criticize her agenda as siphoning federal funding away from public schools and giving it to private schools that cater to the elite.

Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, a teachers union that opposed DeVos’s confirmation, said the school choice message is falling flat because people can do the math. 

“Ninety percent of kids go to public schools. 10 percent go to private schools,” she said. “If you take resources away than it hurts public school kids. They have less.” 

The National Education Association, a teachers union, was among the groups that opposed DeVos’s confirmation. The opposition to DeVos was so intense that two Republicans voted against her, forcing Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceDems face close polls in must-win Virginia Report: Trump administration officials urged furious Tillerson not to quit Authorities recover 47 firearms in connection with Las Vegas shooter MORE to cast a tie-breaking vote — something that had never before happened for a Cabinet secretary. 

Before DeVos took office, Eskelsen García said educators were having a great debate about ways to improve public education following the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law rolled back high stakes testing and allowed states to come up with their own academic standards. 

“Taking money away from public schools and giving it to private schools is not on that list, but for DeVos it’s the only thing on her list, ” Eskelsen García said.

DeVos has been pushing school choice every chance she gets. 

In March she called historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) “real pioneers when it comes to school choice” in a statement after meeting with dozens of HBCU leaders.

“They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and great quality,” she said. “Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”

Her remarks generated a backlash, as critics noted that HBCUs were created not out of choice but necessity because of racial segregation.

DeVos has since walked back those remarks, telling the AP last week she “should have decried much more forcefully the ravages of racism in this country.” 

Despite the gaffe and constant criticism she receives, supporters of DeVos say she is making headway on her agenda. 

“There’s no question she got off to a less than smooth start, but I think in the last few weeks and months she’s beginning to find her sea legs and as a result she’s had a fair amount of success given the tremendous opposition she’s been facing from the education establishments,” said Ed Patru, a vice president at the D.C. public affairs firm, DCI Group, and the former spokesman for the now dissolved Friends of Betsy DeVos coalition. 

“She’s laying the groundwork for federal school choice, she’s reorienting the Office of Civil Rights towards due process and civil engagement and when it comes to spending priorities, she put forth a budget proposal that brings the department back to a much more focused mission.”

DeVos’s budget plan called for cutting $9 billion from the department in 2018, including $2.3 billion in teacher training grants and $1.2 billion for an after school programs that serves children in some of the nation’s poorest communities, while investing $1.4 billion on new public and private school choice opportunities.

“Look, this is what the American people elected,” Patru said.

“They wanted change and an outsider’s perspective and she certainly brings that to the department.” 

Aside from school choice, DeVos has announced plans to redo the gainful employment and the borrower defense to repayment rules — two Obama-era regulations aimed at ensuring students at for-profit colleges get the education they pay for.

DeVos had said the Education Department’s regulatory reform task force, which Trump ordered each agency to create, has found another 150 regulations for the department offices to review.

She also joined Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsIntel leaders: Collusion still open part of investigation Republicans jockey for position on immigration Biden to Alabama: No more extremist senators MORE in rescinded guidance directing schools to let transgender students use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

That’s the policy change that gets to Eskelsen García the most. 

“These are incredibly vulnerable children that face incredible discrimination in their little lives,” she said. “She could have, without it costing a dime, left that protection in place and she took it away.”  

Jennifer Steele, an associate professor of education at American University, was an initial supporter of DeVos. In an op-ed for Education Week in March, she argued that the left should give the new secretary of Education a chance.   

Now, following the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. last weekend, Steele said DeVos should demonstrate a stronger respect for traditional public schools in addition to the private education alternatives she’s pushing. 

“The purpose of schooling is to expose people to diverse ideas and experiences. By allowing people to opt out of public schooling we risk having a more fragmented society and in the wake of the events in Charlottesville, that’s really an increasing concern,” she said. 

“I’d like to see this administration grapple with that question a bit more, how to ensure a threshold of education for all children and exposure to diverse people and ideas in their schools.”