Wondering how new U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos spent her first full week as the nation’s schools chief?
For one thing, she made it through the week without any protests, unlike last Friday when demonstrators prevented her from getting into the Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington, D.C., just blocks from the Department of Education headquarters.
She eventually found her way into the school, accompanied by former Oakland Unified Superintendent Antwan Wilson, also newly arrived in Washington after being appointed Chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools.
So far, DeVos has made no public references to taxpayer support to underwrite private school tuition, the major thrust of her work for several decades, and an issue that became a lightning rod in her fight to be confirmed as secretary. But each event she attended unmistakably reinforced the theme of expanding “school choice” offerings to parents.
On Valentine’s Day, DeVos went to the White House for what was billed as a parent-teacher conference listening session with both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at a round table discussion with 10 people whom DeVos described as “parents and educators representing traditional public schools, charter public schools, home schools, private schools — a range of choices.”
The selection sent a signal about how the Trump administration views the education landscape. Despite the fact that 90 percent of the nation’s children attend public schools, there were only two public school representatives in the group – a public school principal and a parent. Other invitees were two home schooling parents, two private school parents, a charter school parent, a private school teacher, and the president of a dropout prevention program.
Not unexpectedly, Trump started off by saying that DeVos had “a very unfair trial” in the U.S. Senate, and showered her with praise, saying she demonstrated “toughness and genius” in getting through her confirmation fight, especially the last night when Democrats kept the Senate open with dozens of speeches with the common theme that she was unqualified for the position.
The White House released transcripts of Trump and DeVos’ introductory remarks, not of the discussion that followed.
DeVos’ first major speech was to a Magnet Schools of America conference the next day. Magnet schools are specialized public school programs that are among the “choices” that Trump and DeVos have said parents should have more access to. But they have taken a decidedly backseat to DeVos’ focus over the past several decades on promoting parent subsidies for private school tuition, followed by support for charter schools.
Nationally there are an estimated 2.6 million children attending 3,285 magnet schools. As of the 2014-15 school year, there were 546 magnet schools in California, with an enrollment of 578,145 students. That’s about the same number of charter school students in the state.
DeVos praised magnet schools for the “vital role they played to improve the lives of urban students, to combat segregation and to provide a quality option to parents and kids alike.”
The schools, she said, “are often referred to as the original school choice option.”
DeVos pointed to the Department of Education’s Magnet Schools Assistance Program and the Every Student Succeeds Act, approved by Congress in 2015 to replace the No Child Left Behind law, which she said will provide more flexibility to magnet schools in federal grant programs. That, she said, “will hopefully lead to greater program success.”
She described last week’s protest at the Jefferson Academy as demonstrating “just how hostile some people are to change and to new ideas. Without realizing it, we, too, can fall victim to this trap of seeing our work in education as an ‘us vs. them’ approach.”
“I know this to be true throughout the reform community, where there are those who claim to be champions of education, but they really only support their respective sectors,” she said, in an apparent effort to tamp down the passions and divisions her nomination has generated. “These silos are unnecessary and unproductive in our common goal to serve all students.”
She suggested that she is not a dogmatic ideologue along the lines she has been portrayed. “Please know, I am the type of person who listens more than she speaks, so know that my door is open to you, to hear your concerns, and to help you build on your achievements,” she said.
She also managed to fit in interviews with conservative commentators and talk show hosts. In an interview with Cal Thomas, she emphasized that a school choice program would have to be “a state-adopted” program. More important, she said, would be the rollout and implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. She noted that the legislation allows states to implement some choice programs at a local level, and “I am very much going to encourage them to take the ball and run with it as far as possible.”
Speaking with Michigan-based talk show host Frank Beckman, she argued that the Every Student Succeeds Act “essentially does away with the notion of the Common Core.” She said the federal law “encourages states to set forth their own levels of achievement, expectations, and it asks states to put a plan together that demonstrates how they are going to show that students are achieving what they should achieve.”
The following day she gave her first speech on higher education, which is also a major responsibility of her department. Speaking at the Community College National Legislative Summit, she described community colleges as a “uniquely American national asset” and as “absolutely essential engines of workforce and economic development.”
She especially praised dual enrollment programs, which allow students to take community college classes while still in high school. “This visionary model allows students, starting as early as 9th grade, to take high school and college courses, and to graduate in five years with a no-cost associate’s degree,” she said.
She referred again to the controversy surrounding her nomination. “My passion and actions have been to help improve educational opportunities for students and parents. And while some have characterized the flurry of attention around my confirmation in negative terms, I viewed it as expressions of passion – passionate parents and advocates who care deeply about their kids and about education.”
After only 10 days in her 7th floor office in the Department of Education headquarters on Maryland Avenue, it is far too soon to tell how these early signals of cooperation will play out in the months and years ahead. In contrast to her boss in the White House, DeVos has attempted to strike a conciliatory note, while not letting go of the “school choice” themes that he promoted in his campaign, and she has promoted for decades.