What Betsy DeVos Means as Secretary of Education

by Watson Scott Swail, Ed.D., President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

A little later today, the education world will find out if billionaire Betsy DeVos will take the reins of the U.S. Department of Education. Much has been said about DeVos, the husband of former Amway CEO Dick DeVos and brother of former Blackwater founder and CEO Erik Prince. I only mention those two relatives because it illustrates where the money came from and how. DeVos is an extraordinarily affluent person who has used her wealth to support charter schools and Republicans over the decades. You can judge whether that is good or bad. In the end, it isn’t necessarily a meaningful piece of information. There are plenty of affluent people who give millions to Democrats and support mission-based purposes, too. The difference is that those people have never been appointed to a Cabinet-level position before.

As of this morning, there are two Republicans who say they will vote against DeVos (Senators Collins and Murkowski). Even so, it is likely that DeVos will meet the threshold with the tie-breaking vote from Vice President Pence.

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With DeVos at the helm, what will happen at the U.S. Department of Education? This is always difficult to say, but there have been some red flag warnings given her background. Overall, we know that President Trump could push the US into some type of austerity package, with significant if not severe cuts in the size, scope, and budget of the federal government, with some exception for the Department of Defense. Here are some thoughts:

  1. The U.S. Department of Education will undergo a massive (some say, “HUUUUGE”) SWAT analysis to determine what programs to cut. I expect cuts in the 20+ percent range by the end of four years, but it could be even larger. I don’t expect them to get rid of the Department, but they could even cut it by half if they mean what they say. What will get cut? Expect programs like TRiO and GEAR UP to get hit, although many GOP governors and representatives will argue against cutting any programs that give their states funding. Expect Race to the Top and I3 programs to take either a large hit or be fully eliminated. Other competitive programs will likely be defunded.
  2. Part of the large cuts will happen because the Department will move toward transfer payments back to the states to do the job of the Feds. How will this look? Programs like Special Education and Title I will be transferred to the states in the millions and millions of dollars and the states will be required to do the work—however they want to. I dare say, part of me likes that and part of me hates it. I do not trust the states to do the right thing most of the time, which is the problem. There are way too many politics at the state level that change way too often, leaving a very unstable system. Also understand that states control almost all of education funding. The feds funding and programs have always been a way of tinkering with new methods or strategies and ensuring that children with the greatest needs are supported regardless of those political changes. Now, all that changes with a few strokes of the pen. Good states will use the funds better, and less-good states will not. If I live in the traditionally poorly run southern states, I would be worried. Can you imagine what would happen in Texas? Or Arizona?
  3. Research budgets will be reduced significantly. Besides protecting the rights of poor and disabled students, the U.S. Department of Education provides world-class, if not world-best, research services to help determine what works in the education arena. The many surveys conducted by ED, including NPSAS, B&B, BPS, IPEDS, ECLS, CCD, and PISA, provide us with critical knowledge of the impact of public policies as well as tell data-based stories of students and teachers in our education system. Unfortunately, I believe the ED research budget through NCES will be ripped to shreds. I hope not. The research done there should be a national, non-partisan priority.
  4. The federal student loan programs will likely begin to shift from a Direct Loan (i.e., government operated) to a market-based loan program (guaranteed by the government but operated by private banks). The Direct loan began under Clinton as a healthy competitor to the banks (FFEL) and then, under Obama, become the only government-subsidized loan program. We’ll either be back to two systems again or the Trump Administration will completely implode the Direct Loan system. The FFEL program was a subsidy-based free market system, and the GOP and Trump will aggressively push for free market, with the exception, of course, of NAFTA. That type of free trade is not apparently liked by the free traders in the White House.
  5. A massive amount of money will be steered towards both charters and vouchers. That is DeVos’ thing. This is what she has spent millions on with her wealth in the past and now has the pulpit and the budget to do it on a massive scale. Expect large transfer funding and/or matching programs with the states to double or triple charter schools.
  6. The Department will have NOTHING to do with the Common Core. I would strongly encourage the new Schedule Cs at the U.S. Department of Education to do their research very carefully: the Common Core is not a federal program. It is a grassroots program that started with leadership from, at the time, the GOP-led National Governors Association and the Council for Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), among several other non-profit organizations. It developed that way it was supposed to be done: by teachers and other stakeholders from across the country. The only thing the Department did was tie some program funding to help support the Common Core (see Race to the Top, which is why it is gone). The Core couldn’t have come out in a better manner, but it became a hotly contested political football when it shouldn’t have. Anyone who thinks a form of national standards—created from the ground up—is a bad idea should get their head examined.
  7. And finally, restrictions and regulations on private higher education will be largely exorcised from the system. The Senate took on private, for-profit higher education with gainful employment legislation to rid the sector of fly-by-nights and other even more mainstream institutions from overcharging people for degrees that do not result in jobs let alone careers. This, in addition to the large reliance on Pell Grant funds and federal student loans, caused the Senate to take action. But the new administration largely wants to get rid of these regulations. This will become a problem for Pell Grant funding and other programs.

These are my initial thoughts. It is hard to say exactly what will come, but these are very likely. The $87 billion in FY2015 expenditures will be cut drastically. The 4,400 staff at ED will also be cut significantly. Consultants around the country should be jumping with joy, because work of the 1,000+ staffers who get laid off from the Department will be replaced by consultants who will receive state-funds via the transfer payments to the Department.

By this afternoon, we’ll at least know who if Betsy DeVos is the new Secretary of Education.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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