By Michael Grady
The views expressed in this op-ed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of AISR or Brown University.
"Senator, would you hire Betsy DeVos to be your child’s superintendent, principal, or teacher?"
Over the past 30 years – spanning four presidential administrations – six individuals have served as U.S. Secretary of Education. While reasonable people will disagree on the relative impact of these leaders and their legacies, there’s little question that each was well prepared to fulfill his or her leadership duties. Lamar Alexander, who served in the George H.W. Bush administration, came to the department as the former governor of Tennessee and president of the University of Tennessee; he was followed by Lauro Cavazos, the former president of Texas Tech University. Richard Riley served as secretary during the Clinton administration, having completed two terms as governor of South Carolina where he pushed successfully for the expansion of state investments in public education. President George W. Bush’s first secretary, Rod Paige, was previously the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District. He was succeeded by Margaret Spellings, a White House domestic policy adviser who went on to become the president of the University of North Carolina. Finally, President Obama appointed Arnie Duncan, the former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, as his first secretary. Duncan was succeeded by his deputy, John King, New York’s former chief state school officer.
President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary represents a sharp break in this impressive line of seasoned education leaders. DeVos, whose past public role has been as a wealthy supporter of conservative causes, has no first-hand experience with public schools or universities – as an administrator, teacher, student, or parent. As displayed in excruciating exchanges with Senate Democrats at her confirmation hearing, Ms. DeVos lacks even a superficial understanding of some of the most pressing policy issues facing U.S. education today. As a single-issue nominee focused on school choice, she appeared over-matched on basic issues such as “growth versus proficiency” approaches to measuring student progress, to the purpose of the decades-old Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), to accountability obligations of charter schools, to the role of the federal government in promoting achievement of low-income students. Any one of these missteps should cast doubt on the nominee’s readiness to lead the department.
This is a high-stakes moment in the history of American public education, and it demands battle-tested, knowledgeable leadership at the federal helm. Next year states and school districts will begin implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). With substantial devolution of responsibility to the states, educators will require steady guidance and resources from Washington. Beyond ESSA, other important questions await the incoming administration: What is the department’s commitment to scientific research and innovation, given educators’ increasing reliance on evidence-based strategies? How will the administration support higher education and vocational training, which are known gateways to successful adulthood? Will the department continue to support early learning initiatives that have such strong support in the states? In short, how will the secretary steer the agency to fulfill its stated mission of “promoting student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access?”
Latest reports are that not one Democratic member of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions intends to vote in support of DeVos’ nomination. As Republican members continue to weigh this nominee’s readiness to lead this large, consequential agency, perhaps they should ask themselves a simple question: Would you hire Betsy DeVos to be your child’s superintendent, principal, or teacher?
Michael Grady is the interim executive director of AISR and assistant professor of practice in Brown University’s Master’s in Urban Education Policy Program.