Washington education leaders and advocates agree on one thing: Betsy DeVos’ education agenda is in stark contrast with Washington’s.
It’s too early to tell what impact Betsy DeVos’s tenure as education secretary will have on Washington state’s public-education system. But after DeVos was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, Washington education leaders and advocates agree on one thing: DeVos’ education agenda is in stark contrast with Washington’s.
In her home state of Michigan, for example, the billionaire philanthropist has supported using public dollars for private schools and opposed making charters adhere to the same oversight as other public schools. She also once described the public-school system as a “dead end.”
“She hasn’t exactly been a champion for public schools,” State Superintendent Chris Reykdal said Tuesday afternoon, hours after her confirmation.
The Senate confirmed DeVos after Vice President Mike Pence broke a 50-50 tie following an all-night speaking marathon by Democrats, including Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
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In a prepared statement, Murray noted that tens of thousands of people in Washington state made phone calls, wrote emails and marched in opposition to DeVos.
DeVos herself has said she supports leaving most decision-making to the states, after what happened in the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.
“The federal government has really turned the reins over to the states,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy analysis center at the University of Washington Bothell. “I think we will be the masters of our own destiny, for the most part.”
But others fear DeVos will use her position — and federal dollars — to promote things she has supported. Both President Trump and DeVos, for example, have voiced their support for vouchers, which allow students to attend private or parochial schools with taxpayer money. That system has been met with opposition in Washington, and the state would have to pass a law for it to be implemented here. But as U.S. Education Secretary, DeVos couldpush for vouchers here and elsewhere.
Previous administrations have used federal money as leverage. In 2010, the Obama administration awarded federal grants to some states based on whether they were willing to adopt particular federal priorities. One example is the Race to the Top grants. Washington wasn’t one of the finalists, in part because it didn’t have charter schools or a teacher-evaluation system tied to student improvement.
DeVos is also an ardent supporter of charter schools, though charter advocates noted her experience with Michigan charters is very different from the Washington charter system. Michigan took an unregulated approach, with fast growth and not a lot of accountability, Lake said.
Even the Washington State Charter Schools Association has questions about DeVos. The nonprofit supports public options, instead of allowing students to move to private schools, said spokeswoman Maggie Meyers. She called Michigan’s and Washington’s’ charter systems “worlds apart.”
“(Washington’s charter system) is about creating additional public options for families who can’t simply move or go to a private school if they’re not receiving the education and services they need at their assigned district school,” she said.
DeVos’ role in K-12 education was the focus of her confirmation hearing, so her policy agenda on higher education isn’t clear. In her prepared remarks before her hearing, she said she looks forward to reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, which governs how federal student aid is distributed.
She also advocated for embracing “new pathways of learning,” which are different from the “old and expensive brick-mortar-and-ivy model.” She told senators she wants to work toward making college more affordable, but she didn’t offer specifics on how that would happen.