POLITICS
02/07/2017 08:31 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2017

OK, Betsy DeVos Is Now Education Secretary, But The Fight Over Her Agenda Has Just Begun

The real power over schools doesn't rest with the Education Department.

WASHINGTON ― Betsy DeVos was confirmed on Tuesday, by a razor-thin margin, after an extraordinary outpouring of opposition. That means she will serve as the secretary of education.

When it comes to implementing her agenda for public education, however, the battles have only started.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who backed DeVos and is a major proponent of the voucher movement, told reporters after Tuesday’s vote that there isn’t much she can do on her own. Over 90 percent of funding for schools comes from state and local resources, he noted, so the federal government controls only a small slice of education spending

DeVos has long championed voucher programs that allow kids to attend private schools using taxpayer money, even though those schools are often religious. Her new boss, President Donald Trump, has made the expansion of voucher programs his signature education plan, proposing to repurpose $20 billion in existing federal funds to help subsidize students going to private schools.

Asked what DeVos’ confirmation means for that $20 billion proposal, Scott said not much. “It means it still has to get through Congress,” he said. “The secretary of education cannot unilaterally make any decisions on her own. She needs to be empowered by Congress, and the fact of the matter is that we’re going to need eight Democrats, according to the current means of the Senate, in order to get anything done. That’s going to be very difficult.”

DeVos needed only 50 votes to get confirmed, but any legislation will need 60 votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster in the Senate. After calls opposing her nomination flooded into Senate offices, lawmakers are well aware that pushing forward on the DeVos agenda will trigger a similar uprising, one that members of Congress would rather avoid heading into midterm elections. 

Scott has his own proposal that would give federal funds to students hoping to escape their local public school. But outside of congressional legislation, Scott said he did not think the U.S. Department of Education will have substantial influence over where kids go to school. 

“I think there are 29 states that have some school choice already,” said Scott, referring to programs that help subsidize private schools. “We’re only going to empower the states to do what they want to do. We can’t tell them what to do, nor should we.”

Still, there are tangible ways in which DeVos could have a major impact on K-12 education, even without Congress. She will have considerable influence over the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, which works to ensure that children have equal access to education. This means she can affect the way the most vulnerable children are treated in school.

But on a macro level, students will likely notice little change under DeVos, said Kevin Kosar, a senior fellow at the right-leaning R Street Institute.

“If anything, the K-12 system has shown a remarkable resistance to change. We’ve seen wave after wave of education reform ... but not a night-and-day transformation,” he said. 

Kosar suspects that under DeVos, the federal government will choose to exercise less influence over local and state education decisions. 

But as for voucher programs, he said, “How much she’s going to be able to foster the school choice movement is not at all clear to me. No doubt she’ll try to do something on that count, but there’s a limited number of levers for sure.”

Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, said she remains concerned over areas where DeVos has jurisdiction. Byard pointed in particular to the Office for Civil Rights, where she noted DeVos has control over “budgeting, staffing, prioritization.” Under the Obama administration, secretaries Arne Duncan and John King Jr. issued guidance through that office that was specifically designed to protect LGBTQ students. This could be lost under DeVos.

DeVos also has influence over the implementation of some specifics under the Every Student Succeeds Act, a broad new federal law replacing the No Child Left Behind Act.

According to Byard, a “record number” of families turned to the Office for Civil Rights last year after experiencing school discrimination. 

“Whatever happens in the executive branch, everyone in America still has rights under federal law,” she said. “Students will have rights, but rights without enforcement means little for our students.” 

From the other side of the political spectrum, Scott sounded a similarly non-optimistic tone.

Asked how much he thought the new secretary could accomplish, he said, “Not much without congressional approval. That’s the myth from the other side, that she could somehow appropriate the resources in a way that’s inconsistent with federal law ― and that just can’t happen.”

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