Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Betsy DeVos’ Latest Speech Should Keep Conservatives on Edge


Conservatives have been waiting for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to unveil how much federal muscle she’ll exercise to push school choice. In a speech Monday before the American Federation for Children (AFC), an organization she previously chaired, DeVos hinted at but didn’t lay out the plan. In fact, her messages were decidedly mixed.

Throughout the Fed-Ed Era of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, most of what the feds did through No Child Left Behind and then the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) had no grounding in the Constitution. Education isn’t a constitutionally delegated power, so the opinion of the Secretary of Education (an office that shouldn’t exist) on that issue is constitutionally irrelevant. Whether an education policy is good or bad, the federal government has no authority to impose or incentivize it.

It’s not clear that DeVos truly understands that. On the one hand, she offered some excellent comments on the limits of federal involvement in education. Apparently referring to Obama’s Race to the Top program, she promised that “we won’t accomplish our goals by creating a new federal bureaucracy or by bribing states with their own taxpayers’ money. We should have zero interest in substituting the current big government approach for our own big government approach [her emphasis].”

DeVos went on: “I firmly believe every state should provide choices and embrace equal opportunity in education. But those are decisions states must make.” “When it comes to education,” she said, “no solution, not even ones we like, should be dictated or run from Washington, DC.” And on the issue of school accountability, conservatives could certainly cheer this statement: “Every option should be held accountable, but they should be directly accountable to parents and communities, not to Washington, DC bureaucrats.”

But DeVos also said this: “The president is proposing the most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history.” What does this mean? Although some have speculated Trump will propose a federal tax-credit program to help families pay for private education (a concept that’s fraught with peril and deserving of its own discussion elsewhere), DeVos’ next sentence suggests otherwise: “If a state doesn’t want to participate, that would be a terrible mistake on their part. They will be hurting the children and families who can least afford it.” A tax credit would be available to individuals and perhaps corporations, not states, so there would be nothing for a state to decline to “participate” in.

Her wording indicates a federal program of some kind that would be “voluntary” for the states — just like Race to the Top, a concept she just indicated she didn’t plan to replicate. Or maybe she merely intends to use the bully pulpit to encourage participation in a state-generated wave of school-choice experiments. But that doesn’t seem to mesh with the “ambitious expansion” of school choice the president will supposedly be proposing. And her warning that states would be making a “terrible mistake” in declining to participate carries a whiff of Don Corleone. All very puzzling.

Also concerning was the expansive vision of education policy she referred to. Channeling Obama on the campaign trail, she declared, “We need a transformation — a transformation that will open up America’s closed and antiquated education system.” She continued, “We stand on the verge of the most significant opportunity we have ever had to drag American education out of the Stone Age and into the future.”

One wonders what “we” she’s referring to. If it’s the federal government, she’s making the same constitutional mistake Bush and Obama did.

DeVos’ musings about what “we” should be doing in education extended to her second endorsement of utilitarian “competency-based education” (CBE) in as many weeks. All the CBE buzzwords — “mastery,” “seat time,” “outcomes, not inputs” — found their way into her speech, as did a shout-out to “the role of technology to fully enter the 21st century.” The new fed-ed statute, the Every Student Succeeds Act, is all about CBE, and DeVos seems to be fine with that.

All in all, DeVos’ speech raised more questions that it answered. In an ideal world, she would decline to express any opinions on education policy on the grounds that what the states do is none of her business, and would devote herself to an orderly wind-down of the U.S. Department of Education. That doesn’t appear to be happening. Conservatives will just have to wait for the next episode.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Jane Robbins

Jane Robbins is an attorney and senior fellow with the American Principles Project.

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