DeVos in Denver: Education Policy Best Left to States

DeVos in Denver: Education Policy Best Left to States
Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post via AP
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DENVER – Education Secretary Betsy DeVos addressed a friendly gathering of conservative state legislators Thursday and promised to minimize the federal government's role in education policy and allow states, local officials, parents and teachers to lead the way.

Only 24 hours before her remarks, hundreds of protesters surrounded the Hyatt Regency in downtown Denver to demonstrate against DeVos and her agenda. Signs that read “Go home DeVos,” “Keep public education public” and “DeVos is wrong for education” greeted the attendees of the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an influential nonprofit organization made up of primarily Republican state legislators and private sector representatives who coordinate and develop legislation at the state and local level.

But inside the hotel, the atmosphere was warm and buzzing with anticipation. Taking the stage, DeVos joked that it was the first event she's been to as secretary where the protesters “aren't here just necessarily for me,” a reference to ALEC's reputation among Democrats and liberals.

DeVos praised ALEC and its members for being the “laboratories of democracy” and declared that states and local officials are better suited to meet the needs of students and teachers than “someone perched in Washington, D.C.” Throughout her address, DeVos emphasized she would reduce the footprint of the U.S. Department of Education. “Education is best addressed at the state, local and family levels,” she said.

DeVos talked little about policies she might push from Washington but instead praised individual states for propelling conservative reforms, especially school choice. She recognized Kentucky for passing its first charter school law and lauded Arizona for its unprecedented expansion of education savings accounts. “The next reforms won't originate from Washington, D.C.,” DeVos proclaimed. “They'll come from you.”

The home-field crowd gobbled up her words with frequent applause. “I'm ecstatic,” Arizona State Sen. Paul Boyer, chair of the Arizona House Education Committee, said after the speech. “It's so refreshing to hear our secretary of education saying, 'We want to get out of the way and we want to go back to what the Founders intended.'”

After her remarks, DeVos joined Arizona State Sen. Debbie Lesko on stage to answer questions submitted by legislators. Fielding a question on school choice, DeVos affirmed that the administration would not pursue a federally mandated choice program, but would ensure that states had the final say. The president's budget proposal seeks a massive expansion of school choice but primarily through grants that states could choose to accept or reject.

We should “not mandate a new program or a one-size-fits-all program at the federal level,” DeVos responded. “Overreach from the previous administration should not be countered by overreach from this administration.”

While ALEC proactively supports the expansion of school choice at the state and local level, many of its members oppose any sort of top-down, federal programs. “I would be utterly opposed to a school choice program funded by the federal government,” Utah State Sen. Howard Stephenson said. “We've seen what they've done with health care.”

While DeVos repeatedly stressed the minimal role the department would take under her tenure, in recent weeks she's come under fire for how her department has responded to certain states' plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the successor of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The department told Delaware, for example, that its long-term achievement goals were not “ambitious.” The law requires states to set “ambitious” goals but does not define the term. As a result, some conservative education experts thought the department overreached and violated its own commitment to return authority to the states.

While DeVos did not comment directly on the department's recent actions, she did pledge to uphold her commitment to states and said, “I'm looking forward to reviewing and ultimately approving every plan that meets that law.”

The few federal actions the secretary highlighted were those that rolled back Obama-era regulations. To the delight of the audience, she described how the department blocked two major higher education regulations – gainful employment, which required for-profit schools seeking federal funding to prove that their graduates were landing well-paying jobs, and the borrower defense to repayment rules, which allowed student borrowers who believed they were misled by their colleges to apply for loan forgiveness.

In recent weeks, Democratic attorneys general and lawmakers blasted DeVos for expressing her desire to rewrite the Obama administration's controversial rules governing Title IX and campus sexual assaults. However, she did not address that in her remarks.

In reference to the recent protests and violence at the University of California-Berkeley and Middlebury College, DeVos was also asked whether her department would take action to protect free speech on public colleges and universities. The secretary pointed out that state legislators have the “power of the purse” to regulate public institutions of higher education but stated that she would not intervene or tell states how to exercise their authority.

Unlike some of her predecessors, DeVos seems intent to greatly diminish the federal role in education and let Republicans in the states forge ahead. It's certainly a contrast to the Obama administration and the era of No Child Left Behind, but it may be an effective strategy, at least politically. Republicans control both state legislatures and the governors' offices in 25 states; Democrats only control six. Republican legislators know this and want to seize the opportunities before them.

“Everybody is worried about what she's going to do, but to hear her stand before this whole audience and say, 'We are going to let you guys do it because you do it best and we're going to continue to get out of the way,' that was very important,” Kentucky State Sen. Mike Wilson said.

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