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Trump’s Secretary of Education, and What’s Next

With Betsy DeVos’ appointment as secretary of education by president-elect Trump, Professor Paul Reville weighs in on the implications.

Note: Portions of this article are included in a piece written by Professor Paul Reville that was published by TES on November 24.

On Wednesday, president-elect Donald Trump announced the appointment of Betsy DeVos as his secretary of education. We asked Professor Paul Reville, founding director of the Education Redesign Lab and former secretary of education for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, to share his perspective on the appointment and what it means for education under the Trump administration.

What does the appointment of Betsy DeVos mean for future federal education policy and initiatives?

The appointment of billionaire philanthropist and ardent, school choice advocate, Betsy DeVos, indicates that President-elect Trump intends to make good on a campaign promise that his lead policy on education will be a radical expansion of school choice. Ms. DeVos, a conservative, Republican activist, has been one of the nation’s most outspoken advocates for empowering families to choose schools outside of the mainstream system for their children. Driven by dissatisfaction with the performance of traditional public schools and a growing intolerance, shared by Mr. Trump, with the status quo in education, Ms. DeVos has donated millions and led a number of organizations, like the American Federation for Children (which she founded, funded, and chairs),  focused on this cause of expanding the range of choices open to families, especially low income families, to leave the mainstream system and take their education dollars to charter, private, for profit, and parochial schools. She has been a fierce advocate for school vouchers.

Education was not a priority for Candidate Trump, who rarely commented on education and provided little in the way of specifics on the few policies he did propose. He was fond of denouncing “failing government schools”, Common Core (which Ms. DeVos seemed to support at one point, recently shifting her position), and the U.S. Department of Education. Trump’s campaign website did feature an all out endorsement of dramatically expanded school choice, especially for the economically disadvantaged. Trump’s conception, now reinforced by the DeVos appointment, promotes choice, broadly construed, to authorize charter schools, vouchers and opportunity scholarships including public, private, for profit, and maybe even religious schools. Despite a lack of any substantial evidence of these policies leading to educational improvement at scale, Trump and DeVos seem to view choice as the transformative strategy to improve educational performance.

Given the controversy surrounding some of president-elect Trump’s other cabinet appointments, how does DeVos’ appointment compare?

This appointment will be anathema to the traditional Democratic base. The unions will be beside themselves and fiercely opposed. They will frame her appointment as “the end of public education as we know it.” There are some pro-choice Democrats who might find a little common ground with her, but her positions on choice are so extreme that they’ll quickly part company. 

On the other hand, she’ll have widespread support among Republicans. DeVos is a billionaire, major Republican contributor, activist, and a prominent political figure in Michigan and nationally. This appointment seems to reflect a recent trend in Trump appointments favoring the extremely wealthy. 

She brings no experience in the mainstream of U.S. public education and no large-scale management experience. Secretary designee DeVos will lead a department her boss threatened to eliminate or severely cut back. Congress, through the recently passed Every Child Succeeds Act, has made it clear that future Departments of Education must play a less muscular, less activist role in education ceding power to the states and localities. Small government Republicans don’t want the feds telling states what to do on a whole range of matters, choice included. 

For those in higher education or early childhood education, what impact will this secretary of education have on institutions (both public and private)?

It is unclear whether Ms. DeVos has opinions on higher education and early childhood education, both important areas which will fall under her purview.  She does not appear to have any significant experience in these areas. The federal government plays a critical role in both higher and early ed, and there are major challenges in these fields. Candidate Trump did propose some thoughts on solving the college debt crisis, though many critics dismissed these as far too expensive. He also expressed a desire to assist families in securing affordable “daycare” which may be an opening toward expanding federal involvement in early childhood education. It is too early to say how this administration may move forward on these critical challenges, but there are clearly opportunities here, especially with the upcoming reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act.

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