Betsy DeVos

Why Betsy DeVos could mean the end of the education wars as we know them

PHOTO: Courtesy

There’s a lot still to untangle about the implications of Donald Trump’s decision to nominate Betsy Devos as his education secretary, announced Wednesday. One possibility to keep an eye on: DeVos could become the first U.S. education secretary to meaningfully depart from a bipartisan reform coalition that every presidential administration has embraced since Ronald Reagan.

That coalition, which arguably launched with Reagan’s “A Nation at Risk” report and culminated in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top project, has been united in three key beliefs. First, that schools need to be significantly improved; second, that the government, including the federal government, should play a strong role in spurring that improvement; and, finally, that government should take a lesson from market-based ideas as it enacts those changes — thus the “reform” moniker.

DeVos is on board with those ideas in that she agrees about the need to change the education status quo, as she announced today on her website. But she’s at odds in that, as an ardent supporter of private school vouchers, she’s strongly skeptical of the role of government in spurring change.

Whereas members of the reform coalition have promoted ideas that essentially imitate market approaches inside of government, DeVos’s approach has been to create markets outright, erasing the government from the equation altogether. She favors doing that in the style advocated by Milton Friedman, the economist who promoted letting families control public taxpayer dollars for schools through private school vouchers.

DeVos has also been critical of reforms that attempt to imitate markets inside of government. She’s criticized charter schools, publicly funded and government-regulated schools, as well as the Common Core standards, which aim to set a bar against which all students, schools, and teachers can be measured — leading to market-style consequences for poor performance.

If DeVos is appointed and holds strong to her positions, she could usher in a new phase of the education wars as we know them. To date, the two main camps that have dominated the national education debate have been the reformers and those who oppose market-style reforms from the left — including, in recent years, teachers unions, who disagree about what government should do, but still strongly support a role for government and government regulation.

Now those two groups could find themselves focusing more on what they agree about — and acting more like allies. Many reformers and reform opponents, for instance, oppose vouchers or only support vouchers with strong regulations, like a requirement that they only serve poor children. And both groups support a government-led vision for public education.

Exactly how that plays out will depend on how DeVos adapts her activist stance to a government position. So far, she’s keeping quiet on the specifics. In a statement published on her website today, DeVos wrote that “out of respect for the United States Senate, it is most appropriate for me to defer expounding on specifics until they begin their confirmation process.”

Betsy DeVos

‘Receive mode’? The D.C. school DeVos visited responded to her criticism with a withering tweetstorm

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Howard University.

Washington D.C.’s Jefferson Middle School Academy is standing up for its teachers after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said they are “waiting to be told what they have to do.”

DeVos made the comments in one of her first interviews since being confirmed last week. She said teachers at the school — the first one she visited on the job — were “sincere” but seemed to be in “receive mode,” which she said “is not going to bring success to an individual child.”

The school took to Twitter late Friday to make its case. In 11 messages, the school described several teachers who creating new programs and tailoring their teaching to meet students’ considerable needs.

“JA teachers are not in a ‘receive mode,'” read the final message. “Unless you mean we ‘receive’ students at a 2nd grade level and move them to an 8th grade level.”

The former and current D.C. schools chiefs have also weighed in. Chancellor Antwan Wilson, who accompanied DeVos on her school visit, issued a statement praising the teaching at Jefferson Academy. And his predecessor, Kaya Henderson, tweeted her withering take on DeVos’s comments:

Here’s the full tweetstorm from Jefferson Academy, which D.C. Public Schools considered a “rising school” because of its good -but-not-great test scores.

DeVos later added:

first steps

Secretary Betsy DeVos on first school visit: ‘Teachers are waiting to be told what they have to do’

For someone now running the federal education department, Secretary Betsy DeVos doesn’t have many ideas for how it’s needed.

In one of her first interviews since being confirmed as secretary last week, DeVos said the federal government was right to step in “when we had segregated schools” and to ensure girls’ access to sports teams. But she suggested that those issues have been resolved, narrowing the issues where federal intervention might be appropriate.

From the interview, published Friday by Axios (the new news site created by Politico’s founders):

“I think in some of the areas around protecting students and ensuring safe environments for them, there is a role to play … I mean, when we had segregated schools and when we had a time when, you know, girls weren’t allowed to have the same kind of sports teams — I mean, there have been important inflection points for the federal government to get involved.” But are there any remaining issues like that where the federal government should intervene? “I can’t think of any now,” she replied.

In fact, American schools, by some measures, are more racially segregated now than when the federal government began to play an active role in desegregating them in the 1960s.

Some advocates have called on the U.S. Department of Education to play a stronger role in desegregating schools. DeVos’s comments suggest her worldview is one in which the major fights over civil rights in American education have already been fought and won, and almost all remaining issues can be addressed best by states and local districts.

Meanwhile, in an interview with a conservative news site, DeVos was also quick to offer her ideas about why teachers struggle — and criticize some of the first public school teachers she encountered on the job. (Cue her critics, who are concerned that she does not have any experience as an educator or working in schools.)

Here’s how she described the discussion she had during her one of her first school visits in Washington, D.C.:

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 success[ful] 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.

In the same interview, DeVos signaled interest in a tactic more commonly used by activists than agency leaders.

She was asked,

Have you considered some political theater of your own, like bringing poor and minority kids trapped in failed public schools to Washington so Congress can tell them why they have to stay in failing schools while their kids attend private schools?

She recalled a march in Florida that drew thousands to protest a lawsuit meant to block a voucher program that she supported. “I think that is an idea worthy of consideration,” she said.

Update: Jefferson Academy Middle School, the DeVos made the “receive mode” comments about, hit back on Twitter late Friday — as did the current and former chancellors of the D.C. school systems. Read what they had to say.