Divided We Learn

OPINION: Dramatic DeVos nomination begs question: Can she be an effective Ed Secretary?

Concerns loom as vote comes down to wire

Peter Cunningham, former press secretary to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, briefs President Barack Obama for an interview in the Oval Office July 22, 2009.

Drama over the nomination of Michigan philanthropist and school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as President Trump’s education secretary is captivating the education and political sector and now comes to a nail-biting finale on Tuesday.

Two GOP senators facing enormous opposition to DeVos from their constituencies announced they won’t be supporting her. With Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and Maine Senator Susan Collins planning to vote against DeVos, just one more Republican defector could kill the nomination. Republican senators in Ohio Pennsylvania and Nebraska are also facing tremendous pressure to vote her down.

Opposition to the billionaire, pro-choice and pro-charter DeVos goes far beyond the usual anti-reform suspects. Pro-reform teacher organizations, civil rights groups, women’s rights activists, students, centrist think tanks, reform leaders, evangelical Christians, special education advocates and even some choice proponents have lined up against her.

Former Education Secretary John King has voiced concern about her commitment to protecting civil rights, and the organization he now runs, Education Trust, is firmly opposed to her nomination. Pro-charter philanthropist Eli Broad opposes DeVos, calling her “unqualified.” The New York Times has criticized her in both the news and opinion pages for her lack of qualifications and her mixed record in Michigan.

Related: Senate committee approves Betsy DeVos, ‘thoughtless proponent of the privatization of American education

Nevertheless, many choice advocates support DeVos, including the Success Academy founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a national charter advocacy organization and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune and Detroit News, among others.

Democrats appear determined to stop her, if only to send a message to Team Trump that it isn’t omnipotent.

If the Senate remains tied, Vice President Mike Pence will cast the deciding vote and DeVos will be confirmed.

The question is, after such a divisive process, can DeVos be effective?

There’s no question she’s starting much further behind than former Education Secretary Arne Duncan did eight years ago, following a bipartisan lovefest at his confirmation hearing and a voice vote in the Senate even before President Barack Obama took office.

Duncan had a few advantages: $100 billion in Recovery Act funds to save teacher jobs and drive reform, making him especially popular in his early years.

DeVos won’t be nearly as lucky. There are, however, a few things she can do to soften the strident opposition she’s faced since her nomination, and since she made remarks taken as evidence of her lack of understanding for and about public education.

She could start by honoring the federal government’s historic role in promoting educational equity and access. From land-grant colleges to Brown vs. Board of Education, the G.I. Bill, federal Pell grants and student loans, the Individual with Disabilities Education Act, the Institute for Educational Sciences, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Washington has been a major player in the field of education despite the zealotry for local control animating the far right.

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to be the next Secretary of Education, testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill January 17, 2017 in Washington, DC.

Second, although DeVos struggled to affirm her commitment to equity in her confirmation hearing, she could quickly reach out to civil rights groups, most of whom support school choice but need to know that she will protect kids of color.

Any number of choice advocates of color should be invited in to share their concerns directly with DeVos and her team. And it would certainly help if she takes the department’s Office for Civil Rights off the budget chopping block.

Related: Opinion: Five misconceptions about Michigan education and Betsy DeVos

Third, whether she likes it or not, her job as education secretary is to enforce the accountability provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which still requires annual testing, performance goals, high academic standards and interventions for the lowest-performing schools.

Her first act should not be to roll back Obama administration regulations but to sit down with state chiefs and big city superintendents and get their feedback. Most of them are already moving forward with their own accountability plans and many will welcome a federal partner who sets a high bar.

Fourth, through the bully pulpit, DeVos could challenge her own party on a few issues, just as the Obama administration challenged traditional Democratic allies like the teacher unions on charter schools and accountability.

For example, she could push some red states like Oklahoma to boost school funding and push states like Arizona and her home state of Michigan to close down low-performing charter schools.

This will not only strengthen the choice movement but also help win over equity advocates like Education Trust.

Fifth, and finally, she should over-message her support for traditional public schools, which still educate about 85 percent of school-age children in America and will remain the primary providers of public education – no matter how hard she and her boss push school choice.

For many millions of American parents and students, especially in rural areas, choice is not a viable option and won’t be any time soon. For them, she needs a more balanced message around resources, technology, distance learning, personalized learning and teacher quality.

DeVos could spend far more time in traditional public schools celebrating what is right about them, instead of visiting charter schools that educate just 6 percent of students.

Related: Opinion: School choice shouldn’t take away our neighborhood schools

She can also turn to the new White House education advisor Jason Botel, a former charter school leader in Baltimore with solid progressive reform credentials who can help her find areas of common ground with the reform community.

And if DeVos is voted down, there’s no reason to believe the next nominee will be much different.

Many progressive reformers oppose DeVos, but they also know that the real work of improving schools and helping kids has to move forward, regardless of who is running the U.S. Department of Education.

But the first move is hers. If DeVos doubles down on vouchers, as Trump has promised, she will spend the next four years on defense.

If, on the other hand, she signals a more open mind on equity and accountability, she will find partners willing to look past the rhetoric and actually get something done for kids.

Peter Cunningham is the executive director of Education Post and a former assistant secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education (2009-2012)

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