Betsy DeVos is transforming her office, but she needs a message do-over

Betsy DeVos is transforming her office, but she needs a message do-over
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Although Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosHillicon Valley: Twitter says Trump 'go back' tweet didn't violate rules | Unions back protests targeting Amazon 'Prime Day' | Mnuchin voices 'serious concerns' about Facebook crypto project | Congress mobilizes on cyber threats to electric grid House Oversight panel demands DeVos turn over personal email records A brief timeline of Trump's clashes with intelligence director Dan Coats MORE made news last week because of her appearance on “60 Minutes,” which underwhelmed many observers, those who track education policy (and federalism) should take note of a speech she gave a week earlier.

Speaking to the association of chief state school officers (e.g. state education commissioners, superintendents, secretaries), DeVos revealed an important — and welcome — departure from her recent predecessors’ approach to the job. The secretary appears to be trying to transform her office from one of hard power to one of soft power and to significantly decentralize authority. Unfortunately, she may have inadvertently undermined her own case by seeming to question the judgment and energy of those to whom she would devolve power.

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The good news for the secretary’s supporters is that the conceptual shift she’s attempting to bring to the office could, with persistence and discipline, last beyond her tenure. And she could bolster her case by showing a bit more public appreciation for the work of state and local education officials.

Over the course of the two previous administrations there was too little daylight between what federal officials wanted to happen and what they felt empowered to advance through federal policy. This was a problem for those who believe in a limited federal role in K-12 education. Just about all education leaders have a vision for how schools, districts, and states should behave. But understanding the dangers of empowering Uncle Sam in this realm separates an education secretary’s desires and dictates.

During the Bush-Obama era, federal preferences related to testing, accountability, teacher evaluation, discipline and more made their way into federal policy. The No Child Left Behind Act and its implementation forced the hands of states. President Obama’s Department of Education took it further by using administrative tools like incentives, waivers, and guidance documents to advance its agenda.

Betsy DeVos, however, is differentiating what she believes from what she is willing to compel. She seems to be bifurcating the role of secretary into a policy job (which she views as limited in scope) and an advocacy job (which she views as robust).

In last week’s speech, DeVos argued that the nation’s primary K-12 education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), represented a new era in education and that it “was born of a recognition that federal overreach had failed.” She reminded the crowd that her department was initially charged by Congress to “prohibit federal control of education.” Accordingly, her team reviewed states’ accountability plans (which are required by ESSA) with an eye toward whether those plans met the letter of the law and with a narrow interpretation of the secretary’s authority. For example, although she has strong views on school choice and personalized learning, she did not force states to adopt her priorities. “The Department is not the national school board,” she announced.

But then she used the bully pulpit of her office to dispense some “tough love,” prodding states to go farther than they had. Although she was limited to judging state plans based on the law’s specific requirements, “Just because a plan complies with the law doesn’t mean it does what’s best for students.” She criticized states for not fully utilizing the law’s flexibility on testing and the use of funds. She chided some plans for not being transparent enough about student performance, and she cited governors who had were unhappy with their own states’ plans.

In total, this represents an appropriate use of the secretary’s authority: implement a federal statute consistent with congressional intent, don’t inflate the power of the office in order to force your will upon states, but do use your platform to advocate for reforms you deem important. DeVos’s approach shows that a conservative’s skepticism about Uncle Sam’s meddling needn’t translate into a cabinet official’s sitting on her hands. It can, instead, mean empowering others to act and then encouraging them to do so.

The problem, however, is that the secretary seemed to imply that state education leaders are lacking the energy, vision, or courage to do what America’s schools need. It is a strange sales job for federalism that publicly questions the capacity of those to whom power would be handed.

In her speech, DeVos said, “For too long, many of you have operated — and in many cases, been forced to operate — as if your work was only accountable to folks in my office.” Here the secretary used an unfortunate and inaccurate trope about state education leaders, suggesting that they sit around waiting for direction from Washington. In truth, state superintendents and state board members are constantly dealing with a vast array of challenges, from improving funding formulas and teacher-preparation programs to reforming school-discipline policies and data systems, to managing delicate relationships with governors, legislators, local districts, advocacy groups, and more. All of this is done by state leaders who are passionate about helping students.

Elsewhere in the speech, DeVos asked, “What are you going to do to serve students in your state?” giving the impression that this wasn’t already their driving force. She also asked, “So, don’t you think it’s time to do something different? To try something new that enhances student achievement?” and argued that state leaders shouldn’t launch a “PR push” to defend their plans. Again, intentionally or not, the secretary implied unflattering things about state leaders — that they aren’t trying to do things differently and that they focus on optics.

Not only does this undermine the case for decentralizing power, it also serves to possibly alienate potential allies. State-level education leaders could be strong advocates for her push for K-12 federalism. This isn’t the first time DeVos’s comments have rankled those on the ground. Early in her tenure the secretary said teachers seemed to be “on receive mode;” and that “They’re waiting to be told what they have to do.” This charge of passivity frustrates essential players in America’s school system and can make others wonder why a decentralized approach to education would be wise.

The secretary deserves kudos for trying to redefine her office as one primarily focused on advocacy and the empowerment of others. Hopefully, in the future, her comments, while containing the “tough love” necessary, will build stronger relationships with and inspire more public confidence in those working in states and schools.

Andy Smarick is the Morgridge Fellow in Education at the American Enterprise Institute.