Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Betsy DeVos Just Delivered a Promising Speech. Will Her Actions Back It Up?


Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gave an interesting speech to the American Enterprise Institute last week. In some parts, it contained rhetoric that skeptical conservatives have been waiting to hear. Yet, other parts toed the corporate-establishment, ed-tech, education-as-workforce-prep line that previous administrations of both parties have pursued. Here is a brief review.

The Positives

First, we commend Secretary DeVos for unabashedly stating the obvious — that the unconstitutional federal control of education has been an utter failure:

The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.

That’s not a point I make lightly or joyfully. Yes, there have been some minor improvements in a few areas. But we’re far from where we need to be.

Secondly, Secretary DeVos accurately describes the appalling federal overreach and the huge failures of both No Child Left Behind (NCLB) under George W. Bush and Race to the Top, Common Core, and the School Improvement Grants under Barack Obama:

Turns out, it didn’t. Indeed, as has been detailed today, NCLB did little to spark higher scores. Universal proficiency, touted at the law’s passage, was not achieved. As states and districts scrambled to avoid the law’s sanctions and maintain their federal funding, some resorted to focusing specifically on math and reading at the expense of other subjects. Others simply inflated scores or lowered standards…

… The Obama administration dangled billions of dollars through the “Race to the Top” competition, and the grant-making process not so subtly encouraged states to adopt the Common Core State Standards. With a price tag of nearly four and a half billion dollars, it was billed as the “largest-ever federal investment in school reform.” Later, the Department would give states a waiver from NCLB’s requirements so long as they adopted the Obama administration’s preferred policies — essentially making law while Congress negotiated the reauthorization of ESEA.

Unsurprisingly, nearly every state accepted Common Core standards and applied for hundreds of millions of dollars in “Race to the Top” funds. But despite this change, the United States’ PISA performance did not improve in reading and science, and it dropped in math from 2012 to 2015…

…On a parallel track, the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grants sought to fix targeted schools by injecting them with cash. The total cost of that effort was seven billion dollars.

One year ago this week, the Department’s Institute of Education Sciences released a report on what came of all that spending. It said: “Overall, across all grades, we found that implementing any SIG-funded model had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.”

Thirdly, she correctly acknowledges what many in the education freedom movement have long contended — that the history of these bipartisan federal failures and usurpations is very long and goes at least all the way back to the Carter administration and the establishment of the U.S. Department of Education. These have included President Clinton’s Goals 2000 and President George H.W. Bush’s America 2000 initiatives.

Perhaps most importantly, however, in her policy prescriptions, Secretary DeVos seems to understand that getting the federal government out of education and going back to state control is an important first step, but also that proper control of education belongs at the local level with parents, teachers and duly elected school boards:

But state lawmakers should also resist the urge to centrally plan education. “Leave it to the states” may be a compelling campaign-season slogan, but state capitols aren’t exactly close to every family either. That’s why states should empower teachers and parents and provide the same flexibility ESSA allows states.

While containing these several encouraging signs, there are obviously several areas of disagreement or that raise significant concern. Here is a brief rundown of those:

The Negatives

Common Core

She described her views on Common Core and its status in the Trump administration as follows:

Then, rightly, came the public backlash to federally imposed tests and the Common Core. I agree – and have always agreed – with President Trump on this: “Common Core is a disaster.” And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.

Many have written about how DeVos’ opposition to Common Core became public only on the day she was nominated and that she led, served on the boards of, and contributed to many groups that supported and imposed Common Core, including those involving Jeb Bush. Shane Vander Hart at Truth in American Education wrote an excellent piece a year ago debunking her contention in a radio interview that ESSA ended Common Core and that it was dead at USED. Particularly strong was his quote of a former USED official, Peter Cunningham, disproving Senator Lamar Alexander’s similar contention that ESSA got rid of Common Core:

Ironically, the new law that the senator from Tennessee is so proud of, the Every Student Succeeds Act, now mandates the very thing he rails against. Under the new law, every state must adopt “college- and career-ready” standards. Thus, the new law all but guarantees that Common Core State Standards—or a reasonable imitation under a different name—will likely remain in place in most states.

Allowing Jeb Bush to Staff USED

Although DeVos rightly calls out the failure of the education policies of the previous two Bush administrations, she has no problem allowing her department to be staffed with those taught by Jeb Bush. The former presidential candidate was the strongest proponent of Common Core in the nation, was ideologically aligned to the “fed ed” policies of his father and brother, and did not start decrying federal interference in education until his own presidential campaign was imploding. It is extremely unclear how DeVos can get away from the federal interference she correctly decries when the very people who have spent their careers implementing that Big Brother approach staff her department.

Federally Mandated State Tests and Standards

Although as pointed out above, the Secretary correctly wants control for education at the local level — closest to the affected students, teachers, and parents — this has been impossible since 1994, the first time that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) required statewide standards and tests to conform to Goals 2000. The noose tightened in 2001 with the yearly tests and accountability of NCLB, and we have since had a close to fatal strangulation thanks to Race to the Top and Common Core. The only way to achieve true local control is to repeal ESEA or at least get rid of these statewide standards and testing mandates.

Promoting Personalized/Competency-Based Education (CBE)

Her questions towards the end of the speech about examining the need to embrace technology and letting students proceed at their own pace are the very concepts at the heart of CBE. As discussed in many articles by education analysts across the spectrum, CBE is an expensive failure that greatly harms privacy and the student-teacher relationship. Especially alarming is the related push for social emotional learning and the failure to protect data privacy during her tenure so far.

Overall, DeVos’ speech contained more encouraging elements than her previous speeches, but there is still much that she can — and must — do if she really wants to follow through with decreasing or eliminating the federal role in education. Stay tuned.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Karen R. Effrem, MD

Dr. Karen Effrem and her husband have three children. She is trained as a pediatrician and serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and president of Education Liberty Watch.

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