What a DeVos Confirmation Means for Education

Staff Writer

What a DeVos Confirmation Means for Education
In an unprecedented tie-breaking vote by Vice President, Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Education Secretary. As with a number of events taking place in the few short weeks the new administration has been in office, the DeVos confirmation came with a slew of opposition. Her history carries a similar theme to President Trump – no experience in doing the job she was selected to do, specifically in terms of running a public school system or university or working to mold education policy throughout a state. While Democrats are waving an angry fist at the confirmation in theory, others are less concerned about what DeVos will do in practice. Here’s a breakdown of the responsibilities the new Education Secretary carries on her shoulders, and what students, parents, educators, and advocates can expect during her tenure.

What, Exactly, is the Education Secretary’s Role?
While some national leadership positions are shrouded in mystery, the position of Education Secretary is not one. In her new role, DeVos will have control over a handful of education-related initiatives, but in limited scope. That’s because education in the United States is widely managed by each individual state, leaving the federal government on the sidelines for most policies and procedures. DeVos will, however, head the Department of Education, an agency with a $68 billion annual budget and nearly 4,400 employees. She will be responsible for both advising leadership there and executing legislation for the policies affecting K-12 and postsecondary schools across the country.

The purpose of the agency is to “promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” To meet this lofty goal, the budget afforded to the Department of Education is used to collect data on America’s school systems, promote a discussion about national education issues, and prohibit discrimination experienced by students. The budget is administered, in part, to schools receiving federal assistance, and DeVos leads that charge.

Why the Controversy
Although the scope of influence DeVos has on the national education system and policy is relatively limited, her nomination as Education Secretary has been furiously opposed. DeVos’ claim to “fame” in education has been her boisterous position on transitioning taxpayer dollars to privately run schools. Instead of focusing efforts in her home state of Michigan on improving the efficiency and quality of public education systems, she advocated for the use of state-funded vouchers to allow parents to select which schools their children would attend. The option for school choice through voucher programs, some say, leads to a gutting of public school systems, since the funding used to back those vouchers are taken directly from the coffers of public systems.

In addition to her interesting position seemingly against the betterment of public education, DeVos has a lean resume which most find questionable. She has not run a public, private, or charter school during her career as a philanthropist, nor has she used government policies or legislation to improve public education. She also has no direct, personal experience with funding options for college students – an unfortunate truth for millions of college students and graduates. The controversy fluttering around DeVos’ nomination was made worse as she tripped over her responses to confirmation hearing questions aimed at uncovering her position on allowing guns in schools, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the ongoing growth versus proficiency argument which with many education advocates are all too familiar.

What it Means for the American People
Despite her lackluster education experience and frustratingly odd responses to relevant education issues, DeVos may have some pull in shaping the education policy of the nation for both K-12 and higher education initiatives. First, for college students, she has the potential to shut down portions of the Higher Education Act, including the role of for-profit universities, the cost of college, and the enforcement of Title IX. DeVos has given insubstantial responses to each issue posed, consistently stating she looks forward to reviewing current policies and how they are enforced. Those looking to DeVos for a positive reform in higher education most likely won’t find it during her time as Education Secretary.

For K-12 the Every Student Succeeds Act is under pressure. Under the ESSA, more authority was handed down to state education departments, backed by federal government dollars, to lend a hand to failing schools. Already, the Trump Administration has restricted the implementation of the Act, leaving some school systems in a state of disarray. Without federal government enforcement of legislation aimed at helping public school system students, some are concerned that inequalities in certain schools will go unnoticed and ultimately unchanged. DeVos stated in her response to confirmation questioning that she stands on the side of the states regarding ESSA, leaving it up to them to identify and remedy troubled public schools.

Overall, previous administrations have taken away some power of the Education Secretary and given some autonomy to state education departments. However, funding of some statewide initiatives to better public education comes directly from the federal budget – a stark dissent from the underlying convictions of DeVos. No one can say with full certainty what the new Education Secretary will do with her new, albeit limited power. It’s safe to say, though, the philanthropist and self-proclaimed activist from the Midwest will have millions of eyes following her lead in the upcoming months.