Blog: The Educated Reporter

Senate Confirms Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary

After a bruising confirmation process and a Senate vote on Tuesday largely divided along party lines, Republican mega-donor and school choice advocate Betsy DeVos is the new U.S. secretary of education.

In her first public communication as secretary, DeVos signaled that school choice would be a paramount concern:

Reaction was swift and partisan to DeVos’ confirmation — settled when Vice President Mike Pence broke a 50-50 tie, with two Republicans joining all Democrats in voting “no.”

NPR’s Claudio Sanchez put together a handy cheat sheet of the fast-take reactions, ranging from the teachers’ unions who strongly opposed DeVos to a congratulatory message from erstwhile Republican presidential candidate (and former governor) Jeb Bush, whose school choice policy positions are closely aligned with the new secretary’s. (Education Week also catalogued the joy and anger here.)

With the confirmation behind her, DeVos must now look ahead to the actual work of governing the federal agency. Lots of questions remain to be answered. For starters, how will she seek to convert her enthusiasm for school choice into policy? What kind of reality check will Congress assert, especially with Democrats in a position to block key measures in the Senate? What other issues will DeVos champion as secretary? What approach will her agency bring when states come to the table seeking approval of new school accountability plans? The new secretary may end up being as influential for the ways she seeks to diminish the federal role as the areas where she aims to shape education policy and practice.

Just how much power will this education secretary wield? Alyson Klein of Education Week explains it’s probably less than you might think. That’s due in part to constraints on the secretary’s authority that were built into the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind as the backbone of the nation’s federal K-12 education law. Republican lawmakers pushed for those limits in response to what was seen as overreach by Arne Duncan, who served as President Obama’s education secretary from 2009 to 2015.

TIME magazine suggests that the inability to block DeVos’s confirmation, despite a groundswell of public support, signals “dark times” for Democrats. In tweeting his support for DeVos, President Trump wrote that “Senate Dems protest to keep the failed status quo. Betsy DeVos is a reformer, and she is going to be a great Education Sec. for our kids!”

Writing for The Washington Post, Emma Brown noted this was the first time a vice president has been required to cast a deciding vote for a cabinet secretary. But DeVos was also a nominee like no other, as Brown explains, in that she “has no personal or professional experience in public education or elected office.”

Over at The Atlantic, Alia Wong says DeVos has already had an impact on public education, even before she officially takes the helm. She was lampooned in a skit on Saturday Night Live last week, a remarkable spotlight on what’s more often a lesser-watched cabinet appointment.

“All us education nerds were on Twitter saying, ‘Whoa, there was an education secretary being spoofed on SNL!’ That says it all, right?” Joshua Starr, the CEO of PDK International, a professional educators’ association, and the former superintendent of Montgomery County Schools in Maryland, told The Atlantic.

And writing for Vox, Libby Nelson says inaction could speak louder than words — DeVos could influence public education simply by doing less than her predecessors. That could have ramifications for everything from how states develop and implement their new accountability plans (required under ESSA) to whether the feds continue to crack down on for-profit colleges with spotty track records, Nelson says. More from Vox:

She could also determine how much energy the Office for Civil Rights, which investigates complaints that schools mishandle sexual assault as well as other allegations that schools have mishandled discrimination, puts into its investigations. She could direct the Education Department to reverse guidance from 2011 that pushed colleges to use a lower standard of proof when finding students responsible for sexual assault, helping kick off a wave of activism around the issue.

So what’s next? DeVos is scheduled to address her new employees on Wednesday at the U.S. Department of Education’s headquarters. She’ll oversee 4,400 staffers and an operating budget of $68 billion.