Could the New Education Secretary Transform Public Education?

GW expert Maria Voles Ferguson discusses Betsy DeVos's history with "school choice" and what she will bring to federal role.

Maria Ferguson
Education expert Maria Ferguson says Betsy DeVos's personal network may increase reach of Education Department.
February 13, 2017

By Ruth Steinhardt

Activist and philanthropist Betsy DeVos was confirmed Tuesday as education secretary, with Vice President Mike Pence casting a tie-breaking vote in the Senate. Maria Voles Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy at the George Washington University, spoke to George Washington Today about Ms. DeVos’s history, her philosophy and her probable impact on American public education.

Q: A catchphrase for Ms. DeVos and her supporters has been “school choice.” How would you explain that in practical terms?

A: School choice is a term that means different things to different people, but speaking broadly most people think school choice involves two options: charter schools and vouchers. Charters are traditional public schools, but they’re structured differently than regular public schools. They normally have more freedom and latitude to do things in different ways. Vouchers basically mean allowing families to take the local tax money that is allocated for their children and pursue other options like private or parochial schools. When people say, “The money follows the student,” that’s what they’re talking about.

A third choice option is online education or virtual schools, and Betsy DeVos is a big proponent of this option.  She has commented that this option could transform education, especially for rural communities.

Q: How much power does the secretary of education really have?

A: The federal role in education is limited in terms of dollar amount. If the total amount of money spent on public education in the U.S. is roughly $600 billion dollars, the federal piece of that pie is less than 9 percent. That’s small beer, as the Brits say.

But the secretary of education can exert some power, especially as it pertains to the bully pulpit. Arne Duncan, the secretary of education under President Barack Obama, tried to exert both his funding and bully pulpit power, sometimes to his detriment. Still, the predominant amount of funding to K-12 education comes from state and local money. And almost all of that federal money is exclusively dedicated to students with disabilities and students from low-income communities.

The recently reauthorized Every Student Succeeds Act actually contains language that limits the power of the secretary, so she has that limitation right out of the gate. That was a Republican-led payback to Democrats for overstepping their educational reach under Obama.

But it’s not just the power of the department itself to consider. Her personal network is very powerful, and they have close ties in the education arena. Plus there are a lot of powerful people in her conservative Christian ecosystem that can and will likely try to exert power. Arne Duncan and the Democrats had a lot of contacts among education reformers and in the philanthropic world, and that compounded his federal power. She’s got the same thing working in her favor. It’s just different people.

Q: So could she use her role to implement, on a state level, the systems she supports?

A: Not easily. Vouchers are going to be especially hard, because there’s no research base that suggests they’re a viable option for students—although with this administration, research may not be a major factor in the decision-making process. There’s also strong polling data that shows most people don’t support vouchers. Especially in a small town in the middle of the country, chances are that there won’t be a robust array of schools where you can go and spend that money.

For charters it’s a slightly different situation. Some charters have worked well, and there’s data to suggest that people support them as a reasonable alternative. In cities like Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, the majority of schools are charters. People tend to feel that they’re here to stay, and although there is still a long road ahead for them to become a major part of the education system, they should be supported as a reasonable option.

Unfortunately, one of the things Ms. DeVos has done is conflate charters and vouchers. Lumping them together when they are very different will not help either and likely hurt charters more in the end.


Q: Some critics of Ms. DeVos have raised questions about the accountability of schools that operate outside the traditional public system. Can charter schools be held accountable? How?

A: Charter schools can and are held accountable based on an individual state’s charter school rules and requirements. There is a range of governance models for charter schools and oversight is provided by charter boards, education management organizations or other entities.

Vouchers are different. Accountability requirements for students that use public vouchers to attend private schools vary by state, and there is a healthy debate over how and if private schools should be held accountable.

A big criticism against Ms. DeVos that she has donated a lot of money to Republican lawmakers who want to oppose stricter oversight in charter schools. She has fought against oversight and has donated a lot of money toward that cause. For people who care about accountability in education, that is troubling.  

Q: Ms. Devos was confirmed by a historically narrow margin. Will that affect what she and the Department of Education are able to accomplish?

A: I think it will. She presents a great target for people who want to stir up public education activists, and there are a lot of those activists. They were effective in stopping Arne Duncan from implementing some of what he wanted to do, and they could be similarly effective here. Also, I have to imagine her confidence was rattled a bit by all the criticism about her nomination, but then again most billionaires don’t suffer from a lack of confidence.

Q: From her point of view, what would be her first goal as secretary?

A: I think she will try hard to win back some critics. She will probably call on those in the education community who think like she does and who believe in the strategies she has supported over the years.

Her fight for school choice will probably be the hallmark of her tenure, but how she goes about doing that will tell the tale.

She says she wants to liberate students from their terrible schools, so they can take their money and go to private or parochial schools—but that’s not as easy as it sounds. The dirty little secret is that private schools and charters can accept and reject whoever they want. How many private schools are going to take low-performing kids or kids with disabilities who will bring the school’s numbers down and require more of their resources? It’s a false promise, the idea that there are better schools around the corner. In most places there are not. So many public schools are already strapped for resources and overcrowded.  

So either she doesn’t know how it works—because she’s never been through the public school system, and neither have her kids—or she just doesn’t care. It’s this kind of “leave the weak behind, survival of the fittest” mentality about education, and our country has never embraced that. Our public education system has brought together so many diverse populations, so many waves of immigrants as Americans. If we don’t have that working for us, I’m not I’m not sure what we have.



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