Thursday, November 2, 2017

Does Betsy DeVos Have One Foot Out the Door or Is She Still Confused About Her Job?

Politico just published an in-depth story on Betsy Devos, which includes several quotes from a candid interview with her.  The part getting the most coverage is the possibility that she may step down soon.  Thomas Toch, the director of think tank in DC, said “in Washington education circles, the conversation is already about the post-DeVos landscape, because the assumption is she won’t stay long. And for my money, I don’t think it would be a bad thing if she left. I think she’s been probably one of the most ineffective people to ever hold the job.”  

Given my commentary/speculation on the Department, it was a fascinating read.  But before I get carried away, I admit that a typical flaw in commentators is that they always focus on the things they get right, but ignore their errors. So I will offer a little of both, which will admittedly bring my power of projection down to something akin to the value of a coin flip. With that caveat, let's start with the reasons why I said DeVos never made sense as Secretary to begin with.

Before DeVos was confirmed as Secretary, I began writing a series of posts querying why she would even accept the job.  In my first post, I wrote "It is not clear whether Betsy DeVos really knows what her job will be as Secretary of Education."  If she did, she would have ran full-speed away from it.

Once she actually landed the job, I wrote "Even if Betsy DeVos understood her job, she could not have taken over the Department of Education at a worse time.  The busiest and most complex process that any Secretary of Education will likely see over the next several years is beginning.  States are set to submit their brand new implementation plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act."

The other big problem was that DeVos would not have anyone to help her close that knowledge gap. "These [ESSA] plans include lots of moving parts and policy choices within a much larger regulatory structure.  The people who understand those parts just exited the Department of Education building."  Competent people were not lining up to take their place.

The new Politico story, by Tim Alberta, would seem to confirm most of these projections.  DeVos basically admits to not knowing what she was getting into, although she does not assign herself blame:

I think I was undercoached. The transition group was very circumspect about how much information they gave me about then-current policy and … it was in their view a balance between being prepared for a confirmation hearing and not having well-formed opinions on what should or shouldn’t change, so as not to get caught in a confirmation hearing making commitments that then I wouldn’t want to or be able to keep. And in hindsight, I wish I had a whole lot more information.

And then she figured out the complexity of the Department a little too late, which again is an admission that she did not know the job and does not like what she found.  Alberta writes:

When I ask what has surprised her most about the job, DeVos does not hesitate. “The bureaucracy is much more formidable and difficult than I had anticipated—and I expected it to be difficult,” she says. “It’s even worse. And you know, in talking to a lot of the great career staff, it’s like everybody nods their heads when you talk about this … yet it seems like everyone is powerless to do anything about it.”

And then, no one came to help her:

She has yet to fill senior staff positions, and it’s widely known that numerous prominent Republicans having turned down offers. She has struggled to acclimate to the proverbial big ship that turns slowly. Perhaps most significant, she failed to persuade the committees of jurisdiction in Congress to approve her and the department’s budget request, which would have slashed funding to other initiatives in the name of expanding DeVos’ pet cause, school choice. It amounted to an embarrassing repudiation of a president and a secretary in their first year, when there is traditionally the most political capital to spend—especially considering Republicans control both the House and Senate.

Does all of this mean that she is about to quit and I was correct that she would not want the actual job she was accepting?  DC insiders say yes, although Alberta is not sure.  He writes, "instead of planning her exit strategy, DeVos appears to be hunkering down and mapping out where she can maximize her impact."  That impact, however, is relatively small and amounts to "a cheerleading campaign" for "rethinking school, innovation, creativity, entrepreneurial activity around education." 

Again, I pointed out earlier that this was the most she could hope for as Secretary.  Since then, I have also admitted that, in places like Arizona and Texas, her cheerleading may have emboldened some states to take action of their own volition.  Whether this is enough for DeVos to stay on, time will only tell.

Okay, so what did I get wrong? I never really anticipated that instead of proactive steps, the Department might just focus on committing itself to doing less.  After all, how could it do more on choice while doing less?  Wouldn't it be a logically inconsistent view of the federal role in education to push states to do more for charters and vouchers while at the same time asking less of them on special education, discriminatory discipline, and integration?

With a change in administrations, there is always a change in the way regulations are enforced.  For instance, that Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings did not actually enforce the Department's disparate impact regulations, as best as I can tell.  Conversely, the Obama Administration did enforce disparate impact in certain important contexts.  I did not expect the Trump administration to continue the Obama administration's approach, but I assumed the hard break would stop at relatively high level policies such as disparate impact and would only amount to under-enforcement, not changing the rules of the game itself. I was wrong and I should have seen it coming.

Trump issued an Executive Order for DeVos to scour the Department's regulations for signs of federal overreach.  I said it was a fool's errand.  The Every Student Succeeds Act was an explicit under-reach, so what would DeVos find?  Not much, according to me.  I incorrectly assumed that the only deregulation that would come from the search for federal overreach would be with actual federal overreaches.  Oh, how naïve the professors are. 

DeVos has used the Executive Order to target basic special education guidance, competitive grant preferences for diversity, and higher education regulation, to name just a few.  At least my co-blogger, Jonathan Glater, was catching the higher education angle.

By deregulating, she is also establishing the predicate for shrinking the Department, at least in her own mind.  Again, Alberta gets the story straight from DeVos:

DeVos tells me she will recommend a “significantly lighter footprint.” This hints at what some career employees fear: that the new secretary wants to eliminate entire offices within the department, which would both lighten her bureaucratic burden and free up resources for lawmakers to potentially redirect toward her ultimate objective: expanding school choice. 

That second point about choice, however, leads me to wonder whether DeVos still does not understand the job of Secretary.  She thinks that now that she has figured out a few things, she will make lemonade out of lemons she has found.  The problem is that she thinks she is holding a bunch of over-sized lemons when she is really holding grapefuit. 

There is a reason why you don't see much grapefruit on the shelf.  There is also a reason why you see loads of orange juice.  When Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, it made sure that states got to keep all the oranges.  DeVos cannot do anything about that.

I give up on projecting what this means for her tenure on the job.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/education_law/2017/11/does-betsy-devos-have-one-foot-out-the-door-or-is-she-still-confused-about-her-job.html

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