Analysis: How Betsy DeVos Could Scramble the Ideology and Politics of Education Reform

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Updated Nov. 27
The nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education garnered fairly straightforward partisan reactions, falling along predictable political fault lines. By and large, Republicans and conservative interest groups praised the choice, while Democrats and left-of-center groups reacted skeptically to the pick.
In the world of education, however, this is surprising.
For some time, a bipartisan political coalition — including successive presidential administrations of both parties — has backed policies to expand school choice through charter schools and to institute higher standards and tougher accountability for teachers and schools. Choice and accountability — or, as critics refer to them, privatization and high-stakes testing — have dominated reform efforts for the past couple of decades.
For better or for worse, DeVos threatens this already uneasy alliance. Politically, she seems unlikely to garner progressive support; philosophically, she is likely to oppose aspects of the accountability portion of reform efforts.
Fodder for the opposition

DeVos’s nomination may embolden opponents who have attempted to portray reform policies as a well-intended failure at best and a money-making scam at worst.

That argument has been weakened in recent years by the fact that one of the chief proprietors of reform, President Obama, has impeccable progressive credentials. So teachers unions, for example, instead focused much of their fire on former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as if he were a rogue agent of the administration.

In sharp contrast, for those skeptical of market-based reforms, DeVos is the perfect foil. A billionaire and long-time Republican whose influence stems in large part from her deep pockets, she is particularly supportive of school vouchers, a policy less popular than charter schools and lacking much bipartisan backing. 

Meanwhile, the charter sector in Michigan and especially Detroit — which DeVos has heavily supported — is dominated by for-profit schools with an uneven track record, which even many charter supporters are concerned about. In fact, current Education Secretary John King, a supporter of charter schools himself, has specifically criticized Michigan’s charter sector as lacking appropriate oversight. A large-scale expansion of school vouchers of the type that President-elect Donald Trump has promised and DeVos is likely to support has limited research support and will likely face fierce political opposition.

(More at The 74: Vouchers Could Be the Big Winner in Trump’s School Choice Plan, but Is That a Victory for Students?)

Opponents of that agenda will have an easier time making the case against DeVos personally to progressives. Indeed, both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers put out highly critical statements immediately upon her selection.

The tepid reaction to DeVos’s selection among liberal and moderate education-reform groups such as Democrats for Education Reform and Education Trust may indicate new and deepened fault lines within the ed-reform coalition. For example, Peter Cunningham of Education Post said, “Betsy DeVos is a well-known proponent of school choice, but her home state of Michigan, where she has played an active role in expanding choice, has a mixed record on charter school authorizing and accountability.”

In contrast, during Duncan’s confirmation hearing, Republican Senator Lamar Alexander said, “President-elect Obama has made several distinguished Cabinet appointments. From my view of it all, I think you are the best.”

Alexander’s view, however, soured, and Duncan’s successor, John King, was confirmed on a largely partisan vote. These and other more-recent developments suggest that bipartisan support for education reform has been fraying for a while, in part because of new opposition to some reform policies, particularly testing and Common Core. DeVos may help hasten — or at least cement — this crack-up.

Choice and accountability or just choice?

Mixed reactions to DeVos’s nomination even among groups that support charter schools reflect the deep ideological fissures among backers of school choice. While the prevailing reform movement has focused on dual policies of choice and accountability, these have always been strange philosophical bedfellows.

One line of thinking goes that families generally should be able to choose schools, but that low-achieving schools, including charters, should face consequences, including closure. This is one reason some left-of-center reformers prefer charter schools over money diverted to less-regulated private schools.

“There is clear evidence that competitive market forces, by themselves, don’t prevent bad schools,” wrote David Leonhardt in The New York Times, arguing this perspective. “The market is too complicated: Parents and students can’t always judge what makes a good school and can’t easily leave one they have chosen.”

Another view holds that parents ought to be able to select schools based on their own definition of quality and that families’ decisions should rarely if ever be overruled. This vision is best summed up by a spokesperson for Bobby Jindal, the former Republican governor of Louisiana who supported school vouchers: “We think parents are the best accountability measure, not government.”

DeVos seems likely to land in the “choice as its own form of accountability” camp, as opposed to pushing for standards and testing.

For instance, in the hours after her nomination, she immediately disavowed the Common Core standards (despite founding and funding a group that backed the standards). She has also praised virtual schools, despite their abysmal test scores and in contrast to a trio of pro-charter groups that have sharply criticized online charter schools. DeVos and her husband donated nearly $1.5 million to Michigan legislators and groups that successfully opposed legislation that proponents said would bring greater oversight to Detroit’s charter schools.

On the other hand, DeVos has argued for assigning letter grades to schools for performance, which is roughly in line with draft regulations put out by the Obama administration under the Every Student Succeeds Act. And, even in stating her opposition to the Common Core, DeVos also said she supports “high standards [and] strong accountability” alongside “local control.”

If DeVos takes a skeptical view of standards and accountability, this will put her in line with a relatively new version of Washington politics: Democrats may continue to back standards and accountability measures, while Republicans will likely continue to support voucher and charter initiatives. Teachers unions will largely align with Democrats but may continue to support Republican moves to limit federal oversight, as they did during ESSA negotiations.

(More at The 74: What Happens When a School Gets a Failing Grade? It Gets Better)

DeVos may be the final nail in the coffin of Republican support for strong federal accountability rules, as in No Child Left Behind. Her backing of vouchers and relatively unregulated charters may also weaken progressive backing for charters that is conditional on oversight and accountability.

Still, a note of caution is in order: DeVos may make a difference, but the work of education policies still, by and large, gets done in 50 different state legislatures. This makes the political effect of the new secretary of education — particularly one limited by the new federal law returning power to the states and districts — all the more unpredictable.

More Betsy DeVos Analysis:

Keierleber: New to Team Trump, DeVos Has Long Been on Team Pence

Phenicie: Did Senate ‘Nuclear Option’ Help DeVos Rise Above Rhee for Education Secretary Nod?

Petrilli: 20 Big Questions for Betsy DeVos

The Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation provides funding to The 74, and the site’s Editor-in-Chief, Campbell Brown, sits on the American Federation for Children’s board of directors, which was formerly chaired by Betsy DeVos. Brown played no part in the reporting or editing of this article. The American Federation for Children also sponsored The 74’s 2015 New Hampshire education summit.

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