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Rick Hess conducts an “exit interview” with Betsy DeVos, which was published at Education Week. Rick is a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which is funded in part by DeVos.
DeVos came to Washington to destroy public education, and she failed. She bitterly dismisses the “entrenched interests” and bureaucrats who frustrated her ambitions to turn billions of public dollars over to religious and private schools and to extinguish teachers’ unions altogether. During her confirmation, she was unable to answer direct questions about education policy, and she was ultimately confirmed only when Vice-President Pence cast a tie-breaking vote. This had never happened before. In poll after poll, DeVos was characterized as the most unpopular member of Trump’s Cabinet. She did her best to skewer the Department’s Office of Civil Rights, to abandon college students who were defrauded by for-profit colleges, to divert COVID funding to elite private schools. Fortunately, most of the changes–maybe all of them–will be reversed by the Biden administration. Here is a fun fact that DeVos doesn’t mention: She is right that the number of voucher programs has grown, but she fails to point out that fewer than 1% of American students use vouchers. Nor does she mention that most independent voucher studies find that students in voucher schools are worse off than their peers in public schools. When a 2017 evaluation of the voucher program in D.C. reported that the students in voucher schools actually lost ground, DeVos didn’t care. She said: “When school choice policies are fully implemented, there should not be differences in achievement among the various types of schools.” Nonetheless, in this exit interview, DeVos continues to promote voucher propaganda, and Hess doesn’t challenge her.
Here is an excerpt:
Rick: Back in 2017, your confirmation process was remarkably contentious. Looking back, what did you take from that and how did it affect your approach to the role?
Secretary DeVos: It confirmed my belief that entrenched interests were going to do their best to protect the status quo, their power, and their jobs no matter what. It gave me a clear-eyed look at the uphill battle I knew we would face as we pivoted the federal focus away from adults’ interests to what’s best for kids.
Rick: You came to your position as an outsider—how has that mattered?
DeVos: Like I’ve said before, I didn’t know all the things you “can’t do.” So I came in with fresh eyes and a laser focus on rethinking the way we approach all aspects of work at the department.
Rick: What surprised you most about the job?
DeVos: A couple of things. First, that the bureaucracy is even more bureaucratic than any of us could have ever imagined, and it takes longer to get anything done than I could have ever imagined. Second, seeing firsthand just how difficult it is for people in Washington to see beyond what is and imagine what could be. Third, and importantly, I am consistently inspired by what parents will do for their kids’ educations. I’ve met single mothers driving Uber in addition to holding two other jobs just so their children can learn in schools that work for them. I’ve met parents who didn’t wait for permission to home school their children nor did they wait for their schools to open this past spring, establishing their own learning pods and microschools so their children could continue learning. I suppose I’m not surprised by the ingenuity of America’s parents, but I am inspired by them and their students.
Rick: For you, what’s one anecdote that really captures what it’s like to be secretary of education?
DeVos: I remember talking with a group of young African American students in a school where they were benefiting from the Milwaukee voucher program and looking outside at a sea of middle-aged white protestors who apparently thought those students didn’t deserve that opportunity. I think that’s a pretty good microcosm of what my experience in office was like.
Rick: What was the most useful preparation you had to be secretary?
DeVos: I’ve dedicated more than 30 years of my life to fighting for students, starting in my community, then throughout Michigan and in states across the country. I know what parents want and need for their children’s educations because I am one and because I’ve fought alongside them to have the same choices and opportunities for their kids that I had for mine. People also forget this is ultimately a management job, not a teaching job. Among other things, you run one of the nation’s largest banks. Having actually led large organizations was very important preparation.
Rick: If you had to point to just one, what’s the single data point that really illuminates your thinking about American education?
DeVos: Half of lower-income 4th graders are below-basic readers, according to the most recent Nation’s Report Card. If the system is failing to teach the most basic of skills to the most vulnerable of students, how can anyone defend it? Worse yet, for the past quarter century, there has been no meaningful change in test scores, yet as taxpayers, we spend more and more for education each year. And by too many measures, these gaps are even widening. Perhaps the largest gap is between American students and their international peers. We’re not in the top 10—in anything. That’s not because our students aren’t capable; it’s because “the system” is culpable for failing them. And, if I could point to a couple more data points, there are currently millions of kids on charter school wait lists, and 3 out of 4 parents who say, if given the opportunity, they would choose a different school than their assigned one for their child. Parents are making clear what they think the solution is to the system’s failures.
Rick: What’s one thing that advocates and reformers should understand about federal education policy which they may not already?
DeVos: It needs your voices. Reformers rightly focus on the states, which are in control of education, but ignoring Washington comes with peril. Remember, a different president and secretary most certainly would have implemented the Every Student Succeeds Act in significantly more controlling ways.
Rick: What would you regard as your most significant accomplishment in office?
DeVos: Hands down, it’s changing the national conversation around what K-12 education can and should be. The concept of school choice is more popular across racial, ethnic, and political lines than ever before. I’m also proud of the team’s work on the historic Title IX rule which codified into law protections for all students.
Rick: And what would you say is your biggest regret?
DeVos: In four years, we set out to change the course set by the past 40 years of the department’s history. Though we’ve made remarkable progress, as long as there are students stuck in schools that do not meet their needs, the work is not yet done. I believe that all children have unlimited potential and promise, and so every single one of them deserves the opportunity to find their educational fit. I regret that we didn’t push harder and earlier in the term.
Rick: Throughout your tenure, your emphasis has been on expanding educational choice for students and families. How would you evaluate your record on this score?
DeVos: My team and I have worked very hard to advance education freedom—or school choice, as most know it. This idea, which President Trump rightly calls “the civil rights issue of our time,” is on the march across the country. Students in more states have more opportunities to pursue the education that’s right for them today than when I first took office. Consider the bold expansions in North Carolina, Florida, West Virginia, Tennessee, and even in Illinois. Right here in D.C., participation in the school choice program is now 50 percent higher than it was four years ago, and there is still massive unmet demand. We’ve changed the conversation at the federal level, too. Our proposal for Education Freedom Scholarships is the most ambitious in the nation’s history, and now there are more than 120 co-sponsors in Congress and more than 50 Senators who voted for Sen. McConnell’s COVID relief package who are helping us champion the idea.