Trump Chooses DeVos to Head Education Department

Published December 13, 2016

President-elect Donald Trump announced Betsy DeVos will serve as U.S. secretary of education when his administration occupies the White House on January 20.

DeVos was most recently chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy group. DeVos has in the past supported charter schools, voucher programs, and the creation and implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

Robert Holland, a senior fellow for education policy at The Heartland Institute, which publishes School Reform News, said, “DeVos has stood tall for families seeking the power to choose the best possible schools, private or public, for their children.

“The venom spewed by national teachers union leaders against her prospective nomination to be the next U.S. secretary of education attests to how much she has rattled those with a vested interest in preserving a monopolistic status quo,” Holland said. “Meanwhile, DeVos’ reversal of her one-time support for Common Core suggests she now understands how curricular standards pushed from the top down by cultural elitists and Washington, DC insiders would undermine parental choice.”

During his presidential campaign, Trump pledged to decrease the power of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), rid the nation of Common Core, use federal funds to strengthen voucher programs for low-income students, and cut college tuition costs.

New President, New Agenda

Trump’s education reform agenda was outlined in general terms during the campaign and since winning the November election, and it’s not yet clear how his administration will prioritize and carry out its education-related goals.

“I may cut [the] Department of Education,” Trump told Fox News in October 2015. “I believe Common Core is a very bad thing. I believe that we should be, you know, educating our children from Iowa, from New Hampshire, from South Carolina, from California, from New York. I think that it should be local education.”

Trump’s website says his administration will immediately add “an additional federal investment of $20 billion towards school choice.” The website also states Trump aims to provide “school choice to every one of the 11 million school aged children living in poverty,” and he says his administration will “[w]ork with Congress on reforms to ensure universities are making a good faith effort to reduce the cost of college and student debt in exchange for the federal tax breaks and tax dollars.”

‘Starting from a Good Place’

Matt Frendewey, national communications director for the American Federation for Children, says the education policy proposals outlined by Trump so far should please school choice advocates.

“One of the very few policies Trump actually did dig into and provide context for was education,” Frendewey said. “He held a press conference where he unveiled an education policy and he went into some detail on his thoughts on how the education policy nationally should look. One of those policies was school choice. He unveiled a much-talked-about $20 billion school choice program to provide low-income students with scholarships to schools of their parents’ choice. While we still have a lot more details to dig into, I really think we’re starting from a good place with this administration.”

Frendewey says Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s important role in the Trump administration could mean school choice will be “front and center.”

“If you look at Vice President-elect Mike Pence, as a governor he enacted and expanded Indiana’s school choice program,” Frendewey said. “If you look at his background and what he’s done on the state level, and knowing that he’s going to have a very close relationship with President-elect Trump, I really think we do know school choice will be front and center during this administration when they start to roll out the domestic policy.”

‘Generally Positive’ Election Results

Martin West, associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and executive editor of education policy journal Education Next, says education reform still faces an uphill battle.  

“The election results were generally positive for efforts to expand school choice, but not unambiguously so,” West said. “Most obviously, President-elect Trump championed the concept in the campaign and committed to using federal education funds to expand school choice. The fact that Republicans strengthened their control of state legislatures may facilitate the adoption of new school choice programs at the state level.

“The federal government’s ability to promote school choice is limited, even with a supportive president and unified Republican control of Congress,” West said. “We will certainly see the revival of the Washington, DC school voucher program and continued, possibly increased, funding for charter school expansion. I also expect the Trump administration to attempt a broader effort to permit states to let Title I funds for students from low-income families follow them to the school they attend.”

DOE, Common Core, Higher Ed

West says Trump’s administration will likely allow states to have greater authority to manage their own education programs.

“I certainly expect to see the Department of Education take a more hands-off approach to implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, permitting states greater flexibility with respect to the design of school accountability systems and in how they allocate their own spending than might have been expected under a Democratic administration,” West said.

“With respect to Common Core, the Every Student Succeeds Act places clear restrictions on the federal government’s ability to influence state decisions about academic standards,” said West. “While Trump’s election may encourage efforts in the states to withdraw from the Common Core, there is no legal authority for his administration to do more than serve as a cheerleader.

“Trump offered few specifics with respect to higher education policy over the course of the campaign, and I expect Congress to set the agenda on this issue,” said West.

Teresa Mull ([email protected]is a research fellow in education policy at The Heartland Institute.