Betsy DeVos is Determined – and Getting Better at It

I watched Secretary Betsy DeVos testify last week before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. What I saw was a very different person from the one at her confirmation hearing in January.

Gone was the shaky performance and limited content knowledge. My main takeaway was that she learned from that confirmation experience, got a lot of help, listened to advice and is now very focused on getting her way.

She was poised, flanked by staff, and she fairly easily answered all questions. She didn’t get led down any path where she didn’t want to go.

You can disagree with the substance of the positions she defended, but you shouldn’t disregard her obvious determination to succeed.

Public education advocates take note. She is not going way quietly. The debate will not be one of style, but substance. We need to be ready, focus on the facts and work to expand an effective effort to support public schools.

To build an advocacy force, you must point out the proven benefits of adequate funding for key education programs. There are plenty of examples to use to make the case for investing in public education.

Advocacy organizations should be ready with examples to counter her opening statement about a young man who reportedly had a poor experience in public school. DeVos said, “he got a diploma, but not an education.”

We already know that school choice – Sec. DeVos’s priority – isn’t a panacea. There have been plenty of problems in charters; even more in virtual schools.

Charter schools are a reality in almost all states now. But they should be ushered in within an environment of adequate funding for all public schools. Policy should not create winners and losers. We should never cede the public education agenda completely, when, as Sec. DeVos admits, the vast majority of children will depend on traditional public schools.

Senators didn’t have a lot of time to dig into all the concerns with a $9 billion cut in federal funding of education programs. But, they raised issues about Pell grants and college loans, elimination of funding for after school programs, Impact Aid reductions, job training cuts, special education needs, rural school challenges, the effects of growing drug addition on families, Medicaid funding for school health services, reductions in funds to review civil rights complaints, and whether her department will prohibit discrimination of LGBT students.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, ranking member of the committee called the budget proposal “abysmal,” and the Republican committee chairman, Roy Blunt, said, “I think it’s likely the kinds of cuts proposed in this budget will not occur, so we really need to fully understand your priorities and why they are your priorities.”

So, Secretary DeVos likely got the message that senators are going to advocate for funding and for programs that help their states. The big division will be around utilization of funding for “school choice” programs, and the overall direction of how public education is supported in our country.

In her opening comments to the committees, she stated clearly her priority is to expand competition in education. Before the House appropriations subcommittee on education in May, she said, “I’m a longtime supporter of expanding educational options for students and parents, in particular for low-income families…my support for educational choice is based on my strong belief in the power of markets and competition as drivers of educational quality and accountability.”

There is no doubt where she stands. At the Senate committee last week, DeVos demonstrated a focused message and backed it up with a good narrative.

Are we doing as good a job as she is? Don’t just attack, tell the story of what public schools are and can do to help all students succeed. We’ve a good message. It takes discipline to stay at it.

Upcoming Blog Posts:

  • “Five Principles” promoted by Sec. DeVos in setting budget priorities
  • The federal education budget in the context of state and local budget trends
  • Why Kansas decided it would finally reinstate some of the tax cuts it enacted

About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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