Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Why Betsy DeVos Is Worse Than I Thought

Org chartWhen Betsy DeVos first sought the Secretary’s office at the Department of Education, I was disappointed, but not all that worried. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) had already gutted most of the Department’s power. Only the most skilled and knowledgeable education leader could make a discernible difference one way or the other. 

DeVos simply wasn’t up to the task.  She showed herself to be ignorant and relatively disinterested in things that mattered.  For her, the job would be more akin to a disappointing vacation of a niave traveler. 

For the rest of us, we need not worry.  How much damage can naive travelers do?  Yes, they may stand in the middle of the sidewalk.  Yes, they may be rude to service workers.  But in the end, they are, at worst, annoyances.  They don’t have any meaningful effect on city policy.

DeVos, however, is showing she isn’t content to fit this mold and I may have been wrong all along.  She may be ignorant and full of bad ideas, but she is not naive.  Nor is she content to serve out her role as an irrelevant itinerant. She is deadset on wreaking havoc and using every ounce of power she has to do it.

While I have long explained that the Secretary of Education now lacks the power to tell states how to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act, DeVos doesn’t care. She has found some “play in the joints” of the Act and is leveraging it for everything its worth.  And in doing so, she is doing the exact opposite of what she promised.

When auditioning for the job, she said: “It’s time to make education great again in this country. . . . This means letting states set their own high standards and finally putting an end to the federalized Common Core. . . . The answer isn’t bigger government — it’s local control, it’s listening to parents, and it’s giving more choices.”

She continues to repeat this rhetoric, casting herself as an anti-establishment figure.  At the annual legislative conference of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 68 big-city school system, DeVos more recently remarked “When Washington gets out of your way, you should be able to unleash new and creative thinking to set children up for success.”

But on the job, she has done something far different. She has criticized state ESSA plans for “only meet[ing] the bare minimum” and decided to give them a dose of “tough love.”  She then held up states like California and Florida until they made changes to their plans. If it came down to a fight between DeVos and the states, states would almost certainly win.  The Secretary’s power to reject a plan is limited to a very narrow set of circumstances.  But DeVos pushed the envelope anyway, apparently using informal routes and slow-downs to cajole change that she might otherwise never have been able to demand.

This exercise of power in regard to ESSA plans is quite stark when we look at the other areas where she refuses to exercise power.  For instance, the New York Times reported this week that

Members of a special team at the Education Department that had been investigating widespread abuses by for-profit colleges have been marginalized, reassigned or instructed to focus on other matters, according to current and former employees.

The unwinding of the team has effectively killed investigations into possibly fraudulent activities at several large for-profit colleges where top hires of Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, had previously worked.

In other words, rather than exercising the most basic type of administrative power, she is shutting it down.

This comes on top of a developing story from last week.  Education Week reported that Betsy DeVos is considering scrapping the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA).  This office is devoted exclusively to the fastest growing student populations in the country—English Language Learners (ELL).  Public schools enroll more than 5 million ELL students.  As I explain here, this move is rather strange because English Language Learners hold a unique place in federal education law.  Schools owe ELLs, unlike every other student group save those with disabilities, an affirmative obligation. 

On their face, these stories are hard to square into a coherent education policy.  They are even more hard to square with the notion that this Secretary is naive and lacks an achievable agenda.  But if we accept the notion that there is far more to DeVos than previously thought, this position makes sense of her: "I am against federal power, except when I am for it."  This is a very dangerous concept when we look at those issues where she makes her power most felt.

 --on Twitter @DerekWBlack

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