In her most resolute wording to date, the Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said that the federal government should not create a new private school choice program – a far cry from where she stood on that issue upon her confirmation eight months ago.
“I wholeheartedly believe the future of choice does not begin with a new federal mandate from Washington,” she said Sept. 28 during a speech at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
“That might sound counterintuitive to some, coming from the U.S. Secretary of Education,” DeVos said. “But after eight months in Washington – and three decades working in states – I know if Washington tries to mandate ‘choice,’ all we’ll end up with is a mountain of mediocrity, a surge of spending and a bloat of bureaucracy to go along with it.”
The slow slide to this new reality comes after months of political pushback from both sides of the aisle to directing any new federal funding toward private school choice, a chorus of conservative education policy experts voicing their concerns over such a program opening up private schools to federal oversight, and a more realistic understanding of what’s possible to achieve given the political landscape.
“This was really the clearest statement to date that she thinks school choice should be a state and local issue,” Lindsey Burke, director for the center for education policy at the Heritage Foundation, says.
Others closely watching DeVos’ shift on the topic agree.
“Certainly the wording and the emphasis in the speech I think is pretty significantly different than it was six or seven months ago,” Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, says. “The emphasis, the wording, the specificity, it’s all shifted pretty substantially.”
“There’s just so little appetite for this on Capitol Hill and even within the White House,” Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, says. “This shift is a sign that DeVos is acknowledging that it’s not going to happen.”
Indeed, the pushback from Republicans in Congress, who rebuffed the public and private school choice proposals included in the administration budget request, along with pleas from conservative education policy experts not to pursue private school choice, has defined the uphill battle DeVos has faced on this issue.
At one point many private school choice proponents thought that if the president successfully worked with Congress to score early legislative victories on major policy issues that he would be able to stir up enough goodwill to seriously pursue private school choice. But that idea has evaporated.
“For all of the clown car stuff, there was a sense Trump might be able to bring pressure to bear on the caucus,” Hess says. “There was a sense that if they had been able to get the tax cuts done early, if they had won on health care, there might have been a sense of momentum and maybe you could have gotten a whole bunch of Republicans who don’t really want to vote for big school choice legislation to go along for the ride.”
“Not only has none of that happened,” he says, “but it turns out that Trump is exactly as big of a distraction as many had feared.”
Some of DeVos’ about-face on federal private school choice can also be traced to a natural recalibration of expectations that can occur when one steps into a position and better understands the political realities that can constrain agendas.
Hess underscored, however, that each of those secretaries had in their arsenal something DeVos lacks – experience working in education policy or politics, apart from her role in philanthropy.
Indeed, Paige, who served under President George W. Bush, had been the school superintendent of the Houston Independent School District. Spellings, who also served under the younger Bush, was political director for his gubernatorial campaign and later a senior adviser during his term as governor. Duncan, who served under President Barack Obama, ran the Chicago Public Schools system. And King, who also served under Obama, was the education commissioner of New York State.
“There was a learning curve for all of them, but it’s obviously been steeper for DeVos,” Hess says.
But DeVos hasn’t taken her eye off the school choice prize entirely.
She said during a Q&A after her speech at Harvard that she’s still holding out hope that a final tax reform bill will include some type of provision that allows states to institute a tax credit scholarship if they want. As it stands, however, the newly unveiled tax plan from the administration and Republicans in Congress – long thought of as the likely vehicle for a federal private school choice program – doesn’t mention K-12 education, let alone a tax credit scholarship.
“I think it would be really hard if not impossible for them to get 50 senators to vote for a tax reform bill with a voucher component,” Petrilli says. “This is going to be hard enough as it is. They desperately need victory, so it will be about how to make it as palatable and popular as possible.”
So, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, DeVos is turning to the states.
“The future of choice lies in the states,” she said during her speech at Harvard. “In places that have been at the forefront of this effort for several years, like Arizona, Florida, Indiana and Wisconsin, and in places that are just now entering the arena like Arkansas, Mississippi, Montana and even where some might have thought unthinkable, Illinois.”
For school choice supporters, both public and private, just having DeVos talk about school choice is a victory.
“I definitely think her rhetorical support for school choice has been important,” Burke says. “Her ability to shine a spotlight on places like Florida and the successes there and to give some rhetorical support to states like Illinois is certainly helpful.”
And it’s a world of difference, Burke says, to the Obama administration’s “chilly environment” for private school choice.
Since the beginning of 2017, a private school choice bill has passed out of at least one chamber in 25 states, according to the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy organization where DeVos previously served as chairwoman. In total, 43 legislative chambers have passed a private school choice bill in 2017. While only a handful of those have been ratified, Illinois’ recent adoption of a $75 million tax credit scholarship is seen by most private school choice proponents as a major victory and evidence that such policies can be embraced even in deep blue states. .
Others haven’t been as enamored by her advocacy for school choice, and don’t credit her with the seeming increase in programs.
Case in point: DeVos is the least popular cabinet secretary, according to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll.
“Her bully pulpit is pretty damaged because of her unpopularity and because of Trump’s unpopularity,” Petrilli says.
It’s unclear whether DeVos is disappointed that her stewardship as secretary may not produce a federal private school choice program, or whether the realization has instead emboldened her pursuit to help states adopt their own policies.
The department did not reply to a request for an interview.
“It certainly seemed all along when we all asked ourselves, ‘Why would you take this job when you’re a billionaire and you have influence behind the scene,'” Petrilli says. “The answer always was, ‘Well this is a once in a lifetime chance to do something big on school choice.'”
Now, Petrilli says, “I think she sees the writing on the wall.”