Over the past week, Elizabeth Prince DeVos has continued to make the case for last week’s Dropout Nation call for her resignation as U.S. Secretary of Education. Her dismal performance Sunday night on 60 Minutes (including an inability to articulate the case for expanding public charter schools and other forms of family choice in education) demonstrates that she remains as willfully ignorant about education policy issues as she was during her confirmation hearing last year.
Meanwhile DeVos’ lack of soft skills required of any political officeholder — along with her failure to hire a strong communications team who can help her prepare for public events — was also on full display last week when she criticized teachers and American public education for not being innovative during a speech before innovation-minded teachers and school leaders at SXSW’s annual education conference. A smarter politician would have tossed out the speech and actually held a listening session in which those teachers could speak to their experiences and efforts. But then, Betsy has spent most of her tenure avoiding hard questions. For good reason: She would struggle to answer them.
Yet as reformers, we can’t spend nearly as much time on DeVos’ public failures. This is because they rarely have much effect on the futures of children, especially those from poor, minority, immigrant, and non-traditionally-gendered communities over whose civil rights the U.S. Department of Education (and ultimately, the federal government) is charged with protecting. Certainly DeVos’ presence worries school choice activists who rightly fear that her presence (and that of the Trump Administration) will weaken support for expanding opportunity. But that’s an issue that can be handled by actively opposing DeVos while also advancing choice.
What DeVos is doing in terms of operating the agency itself is of even greater concern, especially amid news this week about waylaying key civil servants who run operations below the appointed staff.
The latest news came yesterday as Politico reported that DeVos ‘reassigned’ the director of the Department of Education’s budget office, along with at least one other employee, as part of her effort to effectively eliminate that division. Apparently angered that the budget office and its boss, Erica Navarro, have defied and opposed her her reorganization efforts, DeVos moved Navarro over to the Office for Civil Rights (whose operations have been weakened by DeVos and the Trump Administration) in spite of opposition from the Office of Management and Budget and its director, Mick Mulvaney (who normally never has a problem with eliminating some branch of the federal government).
While Navarro and her former deputy, Craig Stanton, are moved out of the budget office, DeVos also moved to eliminate it altogether. The cost analysis branch will now reside in the department’s student aid division — a curious move given that the role of determining the agency’s spending needs has nothing to do with Pell Grants and Perkins Loans — while other functions are being moved into other divisions. Save for any move by Congress to prevent this reshuffling, DeVos will essentially eliminate an important division charged with helping her develop budgets for congressional approval. Which, in turn, will allow her to propose more reductions in spending as well as push for such efforts as voucherizing $500 million in Title 1 dollars; after all, the budget office staff, expert in understanding what can and cannot be done under federal law, were likely an even greater obstacle to her goals than congressional leaders, traditionalists and civil rights-oriented school reformers.
That same day, news came out that DeVos had reassigned the director of the agency’s student privacy enforcement unit, Kathleen Styles, to another job, leaving the office without a permanent supervisor. The office is charged with ensuring that school operators and higher education institutions aren’t violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The move came four months after the office ruled against the scandal-plagued Agora Cyber Charter School in a complaint from families of its students over illegal sharing of student data with K-12 Inc., and other contractors. Some are worried that DeVos will weaken enforcement of privacy laws to help out key players in the charter school movement.
As you would expect, DeVos didn’t leave out Office for Civil Rights in her dismantling effort. Besides demoting Navarro by putting her under notorious acting boss Candice Jackson, DeVos moved Sandra Battle, who oversaw the division’s enforcement of civil rights laws, out of the office. Jackson, an opponent of civil rights enforcement and laws, will now be directly in charge. This likely means even fewer investigations into overuses of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline — especially since the Obama Administration’s guidance is now being considered by a White House committee led by DeVos on supposedly improving school safety in the aftermath of the Parkland Massacre (and has become the target of Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and conservatives who want to conveniently blame anything other than lax gun laws).
This latest move comes after DeVos eliminated 16 investigators and other staff at OCR as part of an employee buyout last year. [Among the staffers bought out: The Department of Education’s in-house security staff, who were replaced by U.S. Marshals (who DeVos prefers and who walk around with her even within the Department of Education’s headquarters); the Marshals, who could be helping protect the nation instead of making DeVos feel safe, will cost taxpayers $15 million by the end of this fiscal year.] With DeVos proposing to eliminate another 34 positions in 2018-2019, the education secretary is ensuring fewer investigations into violations of civil rights — including alleged efforts by districts to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and local police wrongly identify, suspend, arrest, and deport undocumented immigrant children under the guise of being gang members.
None of these moves are shocking. As Dropout Nation noted back in January, DeVos and her team are going to use every tool available in their collaboration in the Trump Administration’s low-grade ethnic cleansing against poor, minority and immigrant communities. This has already been previewed in the 2018-2019 budget proposals to Congress as well as in moves made last year. But while the budget plans — including eliminations of the elimination of the $65 million-a-year Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native education programs and the Promise Neighborhoods initiative — won’t pass muster on Capitol Hill, DeVos and the administration can take other actions that effectively decimate those programs. This week’s news about staff reassignments, along with the move to eliminate the budget division, are the next of many steps to achieve those goals.
At the same time, in eliminating the budget office and putting many of its functions under divisions that don’t actually handle fiscal analysis, DeVos and her team (including the folks sitting on the reorganization committee charged with making the department more efficient) also demonstrate abject incompetence. Expertise can sometimes be overrated, especially in anticipating what can happen in an unknowable future. But in navigating the politics of advancing a political agenda, such knowledge is critical in achieving any goals. If DeVos truly wants to expand school choice, getting rid of her budget experts made no sense at all. But this lack of thoughtfulness isn’t shocking: As we saw on 60 Minutes, DeVos still hasn’t spent time learning the ins and outs of her job.
DeVos and her team have long ago proven that, like the rest of the Trump Administration, they will do nothing well, do things incompetently, act without integrity and operate with intent to harm the poor and minority communities it is supposed to serve. Reformers and other champions of children will have to fight even harder on behalf of children who deserve much better.
Featured photo courtesy of CBS News.