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Education Secretary’s First Move: Reassure Critics

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is applauded after addressing the staff at the Department of Education, Feb. 8, 2017, in Washington.

On her first day on the job, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos plunged into her initial assignment: mending fences with her opponents following a bruising confirmation battle. Parents across the country looked for clues as to whether she will fulfill their hopes or reinforce their fears.

Addressing several hundred Education Department staff members, DeVos, a wealthy Republican donor and school choice champion, vowed to work with everyone in ensuring the best education in the nation’s schools.

“I am committed to working with everyone and anyone, from every corner of the country, from every walk of life, from every background and with those who supported my nomination and those who did not, to protect, strengthen and create new world-class education opportunities for America’s students,’’ DeVos said.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos addresses headlines and nomination
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DeVos secured confirmation in the Senate on Tuesday by the slimmest possible margin. Vice President Mike Pence had to cast a historic tie-breaking vote after two Republican senators opposed her, concerned that she would not support traditional public schools. DeVos views on LBGT rights, students’ special needs and sexual assault have also fueled opposition.

Many remain to be convinced

Jessica Helton, a mother of three young children from the Cincinnati suburb of Mariemont, said she worries that there will be reduced support for and access to services like the specialized reading help her daughter gets in kindergarten and the weekly speech therapy provided at a public school for her 4-year-old son.

“My fear is that schools who are no longer forced to provide these services won’t, and either they won’t have the funding to pay for it or they’ll decide to use the funds for other projects or for other needs,’’ she said.

Others are more optimistic

Rabbi A.D. Motzen, a school-choice advocate and the Cincinnati-based national director of state relations for the Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel of America, said he has known DeVos for a decade and worked with her organizations.

“Whatever the policies that come out of the Department of Education, she’s going to have a fresh perspective, and I guarantee you it will be focused on parents and children, and less about where they attend school and where they live,’’ he said by phone.

Opinions still differ on exactly how DeVos might go about trying to transform American schools.

After an unusually divisive confirmation process, in which DeVos opponents jammed congressional phone lines, some education specialists say both the panic of her detractors and the joy of her supporters may be exaggerated. As secretary DeVos has limited authority to drastically overhaul what goes on in classrooms.

Financial influence small

With the federal government accounting for about 10 percent of education spending and with most federal budget decisions requiring congressional approval, DeVos will have little financial influence. She will however, be able to shape policy discussion, initiate and promote various innovations and affect civil rights matters.

“It’s likely not as big as the hysteria alludes,’’ said Mike Hansen, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. “The champions and detractors of secretary DeVos are likely overstating the influence that the position will likely have in practice.’’

Martin West, associate professor of education at Harvard University, agrees.

“Her supporters and her critics during the nomination debate seem to have an exaggerated sense of the ability of the secretary of education to affect change unilaterally without the support of Congress,’’ West said.

Some parents worried

Still, Andrea Jackson, a college adviser in her son’s high school in Detroit, disagrees and says she was in tears following the DeVos’ confirmation.

“I’m super frustrated. I’m afraid,’’ Jackson told the AP Wednesday. “I think it’s not going to take us in the direction we need to go.’’

At the top of Jackson’s list of complaints is that DeVos is not a product of a public schools system and has never worked in one.

But Kaleigh Lemaster, executive director of School Choice Ohio, says she is excited to have a top national education leader who takes the approach that education isn’t one-size-fits-all.

“The fact that she understands the importance of empowering families to choose the best educational environment for their children’s learning needs is great, and we couldn’t be happier,’’ Lemaster said.