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The partisanship and bitterness surrounding Betsy DeVos's confirmation typifies the new normal in education policy.
Earlier today, by the narrowest of margins, the U.S. Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos to serve as secretary of education. The 50-50 vote required Vice President Mike Pence to break the tie and end two months of acrimonious debate. (Full disclosure: DeVos used to serve on the board of the American Enterprise Institute, where I’m employed as a scholar.)
The bitterness surrounding DeVos’s nomination surprised many. Given the number of controversial nominations made by President Donald Trump, it once seemed unlikely that his secretary of education would provoke the biggest firestorm. Yet here we are. Before we move on to new business, including Trump’s proposed $20 billion federal school choice program, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what happened and what it may mean going forward.
First, it’s now clear that 21st century developments have stripped federal education policy of much of its historical bipartisanship and collegiality. Education has been nationalized by 16 years of Bush and Obama efforts to drive school improvement from Washington. While the No Child Left Behind Act, Race to the Top and the $7 billion School Improvement Grant program hardly constitute an honor roll of successful initiatives, they have collectively given Uncle Sam a starring role in school reform. This has put education squarely in the middle of the national political debates, making it far more partisan in the process.
The Obama administration also helped move the U.S. Department of Education to the center of the nation’s red-hot culture wars. Under Obama, the department told schools and colleges that civil rights law required that they allow students to use bathrooms, locker rooms and dormitories based on gender identification rather than biology. It pressed colleges to weaken due process for students accused of sexual assault and employ a “preponderance of evidence” standard for those investigations, under which students are to be convicted if there’s a 51 percent chance they’re guilty. Agree or disagree, such measures mean that the department is now ground zero for some of the nation’s thorniest debates over gender, religious freedom and civil liberties.
Second, the vitriolic (and pretty effective) campaign against DeVos once again made clear that education is rife with deep-rooted, organic networks. Teacher unions, associations of school boards and principals and PTAs have a presence in every corner of every state. That means they find it no great trick to flood a Senate office’s switchboard or email or to demonstrate that they’ll be active and visible next November. No matter how controversial a secretary of state or secretary of the treasury nominee may be, critics have to work extraordinarily hard to marshal that same degree of grassroots engagement.
Third, as much as teacher unions and school boards lambasted No Child Left Behind and complained about Obama’s affinity for charter schools and teacher evaluation, it turns out they had whole stores of untapped antipathy. With DeVos, as with Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, critics see an existential threat that ultimately dwarfs concerns about things like No Child Left Behind or teacher evaluation. Accountability systems left school districts pretty much intact, whereas school vouchers of the kind championed by DeVos are exponentially more threatening.
Fourth, it was striking how many “school reform” Democrats actively opposed DeVos. Groups including Democrats for Education Reform, the Center for American Progress, the Progressive Policy Institute and the Education Trust, as well as high-profile “reform” Democrats like philanthropist Eli Broad, went out of their way to publicly oppose her. This helped highlight splits between Republican and Democratic school reformers that have been obscured in recent years.
In retrospect, while the contentiousness of the DeVos nomination may have surprised, it’s not all that hard to see why it happened. The big question is what this all means going forward. On that count, I’ll hazard three guesses.
There’s not much prospect for moving education legislation any time soon. Washington’s fierce partisan divides have worked their way into the once-tranquil realm of education. With 60 votes required to move legislation in the Senate, it’s not too likely that the Trump administration is going to move a big federal school choice bill or anything else of note. This means it is more likely than ever that any kind of choice measure will be done through the tax code, where it can pass the Senate with just 50 votes (plus Pence) via reconciliation. It also means that the secretary of education’s impact is likely to be mostly a product of regulatory, rhetorical and administrative activity.
DeVos may take office as a remarkably liberated figure. She was vilified as an “enemy of public education” by the teachers unions, uniformly and acidly opposed by Senate Democrats and attacked even by some long-time allies among school reform Democrats. With bleak prospects for legislative action and after a lot of bridge-burning by Democrats, there’s not a lot of upside for her in pursuing collaboration. Her critics may have given rise to what they most feared, a go-it-alone outsider who will use the bully pulpit and executive authority as she sees fit. DeVos may find herself inspired by the stop-me-if-you-dare leadership of Obama’s two secretaries of education, Arne Duncan and John King.
Finally, it’s all too possible that what we’ve seen is the new normal in education. Nasty, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink attacks have not been the norm in education. But John King’s appointment as secretary of education was opposed by 40 Republicans in 2015 (although the opposition was far more circumspect than anything that’s greeted DeVos). And now we’ve seen DeVos attacked for where she went to high school. We’ve even seen a Washington think-tank issue a report attacking her family. Who knows where this leads.
Recent history suggests that these kinds of fights tend to escalate as advocates and policymakers play tit-for-tat. If that’s the case, the national education debate may get a lot bumpier yet.
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