first semester

Betsy DeVos’s first week at the U.S. Education Department: What you need to know

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

After a bruising confirmation fight, Betsy DeVos has taken the helm at the U.S. Department of Education.

As she introduces herself to the education world, we’re here to help you keep up. Here’s what you should know about the protests, gaffes, and policy shifts that have marked her first few days on the job.

She’s having trouble getting into schools. A main critique of DeVos was that she’s never spent time in public schools before, and some of her sharpest critics have spent the week trying to make sure that stays the case. Protesters briefly blocked her from entering a Washington, D.C., school her first day on the job, and San Diego’s school board also rescinded an invitation for her to visit local schools amid pressure from the local teachers union.

She hit back in a speech on Wednesday. “The protesters’ behavior, I think, is a reflection on the way some seek to treat our education system today – by keeping kids in and new thinking out,” she said.

She’s still playing it safe on some issues. The education department had indicated that DeVos would talk about the achievement gap in that speech. She didn’t.

But she’s making moves on some big policy issues. Before becoming education secretary, DeVos had engaged with only a narrow set of policy issues, mostly around school choice. Now she has to tackle many more, and she has started to do so. Last week, she reached out to state education officials to let them know that she plans to stay the course on the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives more control over education policy to states. She also said she would look to cut “unnecessary” programs from the department, in a bit of traditional Republican rhetoric.

An editorial cartoon likened her to six-year-old Ruby Bridges entering an all-white school amid racist protests. The comparison was condemned as both offensive and inaccurate.

She embarrassed herself online. The likelihood of DeVos typing the education department’s tweets herself is almost zero. But the account’s misspelling of the name of black scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois — followed by “our deepest apologizes” — didn’t do much for her image as someone out of touch with schools and the kids of color that she is supposed to serve.

She’s inspired some people to jump into public service themselves. “Since Betsy DeVos’ confirmation, we’ve had a flood of people come and say specifically, ‘I want to run for school board to protect the schools in my hometown,’” Amanda Litman, co-founder of the political action committee Run for Something, told NPR.

Meanwhile, one of her predecessors has joined the #resistance. Arne Duncan, who served as education secretary for seven years under President Obama, has made his concern about President Trump clear with a steady stream of retweets — and messages of his own.

Duncan also weighed in on the DeVos school protesters, tweeting, “Agree or disagree w @BetsyDeVos on any issue, but let’s all agree she really needs to be in public schools. Please let her in.”

Speaking of Twitter, she got a new account. She’s now @BetsyDeVosED.

She’s still attracting interest far beyond the usual education audience. One stunning thing about DeVos is that her nomination galvanized interest and opposition from a wide constituency — an unusual phenomenon for an education department nominee. That hasn’t changed now that she’s in office. A website for millennial women took a look at the fashion designer who has dressed DeVos, and a home tour posted on a design site included a detour into the homeowner’s questions about DeVos’s leadership.

tribute

Betsy DeVos laments death of Memphis civil rights leader Dwight Montgomery

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Pastor Dwight Montgomery, president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, prays with Kellogg workers who filed race-based discrimination complaints in 2014. Montgomery died on Sept. 13 at the age of 67.

The death of a prominent Memphis pastor drew condolences Thursday from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who praised the Rev. Dwight Montgomery for his education advocacy work.

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

DeVos issued her statement a day after the death of Montgomery, 67, one of few prominent black civil rights leaders to back the divisive education chief:

“Rev. Montgomery was a steadfast advocate for equality and opportunity for all, especially for students and parents. He knew neither income nor address should determine the quality of education a child receives. Through his work in Memphis and with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, many students and families benefitted from opportunities, both educational and spiritual, they would otherwise have been denied.

We in the education community mourn the loss of his leadership, but most who knew him mourn the loss of their pastor. My prayers are with the faithful of Annesdale Cherokee Baptist Church as they will be the legacy of their shepherd.”

Since 2004, Montgomery had been president of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization founded in 1957 to extend the momentum of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that vaulted Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence.

In that role, Montgomery backed efforts that would support local Christian schools — including tuition vouchers, which set aside public money for children to attend private schools. Voucher legislation has failed to pass in Tennessee for at least a dozen years, with the hottest bed of opposition in Memphis, where recent bills would have launched a pilot program.

DeVos is a staunch advocate of the policy and has said she would like to incentivize states to create voucher programs, although it is unclear what the Trump administration might do to make that happen.

PHOTO: Tennessee Federation for Children
Dwight Montgomery (second from right) rallied pastors to present a petition in support of vouchers to the Tennessee legislature in 2015.

After DeVos’ confirmation hearings in January, Montgomery wrote a commentary for The Commercial Appeal calling her “a wonderful woman” and “the reform-minded Education Secretary our country needs.”

In Tennessee and Florida, chapters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have frequently partnered with the American Federation for Children, an organization that DeVos once chaired, to push vouchers as a civil rights issue. In 2015, Montgomery led a group of pastors affiliated with SCLC to the state Capitol to present a petition of 25,000 signatures supporting vouchers.

Montgomery also served as the chairman of the education committee for the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association.

Most recently, he has supported an effort that DeVos’ boss does not endorse: to relocate a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from a Memphis park in the wake of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. This week, Montgomery was among more than 150 Memphis religious leaders who signed a letter asking for support from the Tennessee Historical Commission.

devos on tour

The tiny Nebraska private school Betsy DeVos visited today offered some quiet protest

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos

Talk about an awkward reception.

Nelson Mandela Elementary School is the kind of tiny private school that might benefit from school choice policies that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos supports.

But when DeVos stopped by the Omaha school Thursday as part of her “Rethink School” tour, she encountered a bit of resistance.

From the Omaha World-Herald:

Several teachers and students wore “NE (Heart) Public Schools” stickers.

While Mandela is a private school funded by the Lozier Foundation and William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation, Lozier said in a release that school officials do not support charter schools, which DeVos has championed. The school has a strong cooperative relationship with [Omaha Public Schools], she said.

But make no mistake, Mandela, housed in the former Blessed Sacrament church, is not a charter school. (Nebraska does not allow charter schools.)

“We’re not a charter school and that’s the message we want to hit home today,” she said at a press briefing after DeVos’ visit. “We’re not setting up a conflict or competition between the school systems – public, private, Catholic. We’re all in the business of helping kids learn.”

DeVos, along with her predecessors in the Obama administration, supports charter schools, which are privately operated but publicly funded. When charter schools are allowed, they can put a squeeze on private school enrollment by giving families a free alternative to local public schools.

What DeVos didn’t find at Mandela were active protesters. She got one at her next stop — dressed like a bear.

No protesters were seen before the visit at Mandela. At St. Mary’s, Donna Roller, a former Montessori teacher, showed up to protest in a bear mask. The mask was in reference to DeVos’ statements that guns should be allowed in schools in case of a bear attack.

DeVos headed back to friendlier terrain for her next stop of the day. Hope Academy, a charter school that serves students in recovery from addiction, is in Indianapolis — a city that DeVos has repeatedly praised, in a state whose choice policies reflect her priorities.