Decoding DeVos: What New Education Secretary Could Mean for New Jersey

John Mooney | January 20, 2017 | Education
Yes, she’s pro-charter and pro-school choice, but how might those beliefs play out for educators and students in the Garden State?

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos
What does Betsy DeVos mean for education in New Jersey?

DeVos has certainly made an inauspicious entrance as President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee as the next U.S. education secretary.

A billionaire philanthropist from Michigan, especially when it comes to charter schools and school choice, DeVos has been both vilified and praised — sometimes for the same things.

Her lack of any credentials whatsoever in public education is both a subject of scorn and a badge of honor. Her outspoken promotion for charters is a threat to some and an opportunity for others.

No doubt, her confirmation hearing earlier this week was a defining moment for many. For critics, it was a scary window into a nominee who clearly doesn’t sweat the details of federal policy. (Given some of her answers, there’s a question if she even knows federal policy.) Yet, short of a scandal or political bombshell, she also appeared likely to ultimately win confirmation, albeit along party lines.

Whatever the point of view, there is little doubt that the federal role in public education will hardly be business as usual under the Trump administration and, if confirmed, DeVos as his secretary.

So what will it mean for New Jersey, where federal spending on public schools is a small fraction of the total bill and federal mandates have a mixed impact on the state?

At this point, it’s very early; DeVos and the president-elect have yet to deliver any details of their education policies. That said, however, the developments of the past few weeks could provide a hint of what’s to come.

Charter schools and choice

No doubt, DeVos will bring a very pro-charter sensibility to the federal Department of Education.

That’s hardly a big shift; President Barack Obama and his education secretaries were also supportive of charters. But a Trump administration appears to want to step that up a notch, including a possible infusion of tens of billions of dollars into the choice movement. One promise from Trump was a $20 billion grant program, although how that would work has never been detailed.

For New Jersey, that could mean some mobilization of what is already a strong charter movement of more than 80 schools and 40,000 students. A massive grant program to further expand charters or even bring back private-school vouchers could force the state to move in some novel directions.

Obama’s Race to the Top funding was less than $5 billion nationwide, and it ended up driving how states — including New Jersey — developed assessment and teacher evaluation systems.

“That’s a lot of money (in Trump’s plan), and with it, you can push states to do a lot of things,” said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor at Drew University and expert on federal education policy. “If they are willing to invest that much, they definitely can push states.”

If there were a grant program for individual districts or schools, according to McGuinn, there would be plenty of takers in a New Jersey where state and local dollars are tight.

“Would they all line up? Absolutely,” he said.

Reform debate redefined

The reform movement in New Jersey — regarding charter schools, teacher accountability, testing, or some combination thereof — has been put in a tricky spot with this new administration.

For all of Trump’s inclinations to remake public schools, the reform movement regards the administration warily, at best.

A good example is Democrats for Education Reform, a national group whose president is Shavar Jeffries, the former Newark mayoral candidate and outspoken reform voice in the state.

Jeffries has been critical of DeVos from the start, most recently concerning her testimony at Tuesday’s hearing. Whether he speaks for the larger reform movement is unclear, but the discomfort is palpable.

“In sum, the hearing did little to clarify concerns that progressive reformers have about Mrs. DeVos’ policy commitment to strong accountability and a strong federal role spanning the scope of the Education Department’s work, from finance equity and teacher preparation to higher education and civil rights,” he said in a statement yesterday.

At the same time, reform critics have been all over DeVos as well, especially on social media in the aftermath of her hearing. The criticism was widespread, with comments against everything from her evasive answers to her outright lack of knowledge.

Will this mean a mobilization of critics, only adding to the heat of the debate in the state? Or might it open other options for potential collaboration? Again, it is too early to tell, but the alignments and realignments are underway.

Federal policy, in detail

For all these broader issues, federal policy in public education often comes down to bureaucratic detail, whether it’s how special education rules are carried out or Title I funding aimed at low-income students is distributed.

And that’s where the biggest uncertainty lies, as DeVos has so far shown little inclination to argue policy details at her hearing and, in fact, showed little understanding of many of them.

At one point, she contradicted herself, saying federal special education law should be left to the states. At another, she could not explain the differences between student proficiency on assessments and student growth.

But the reality is that much of federal policy is set in the lower ranks of the department, and observers are watching just as closely who DeVos will appoint to carry out her polices.

“These are actually the ones who are more important,” said McGuinn. “Who do we see as the undersecretaries and deputy secretaries who will be doing the real policy work?”