November 4, 2017


The Education of Betsy DeVos : President Donald Trump's most controversial, ideological Cabinet pick is discovering the limits of her power. (TIM ALBERTA November/December 2017, Politico)

DeVos may have been Trump's most controversial Cabinet nominee--the first in American history to require a tiebreaking confirmation vote cast by the vice president. Yet she runs the administration's smallest and arguably least potent federal department; DeVos does not enforce America's laws like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or direct its international relations like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. And after nine months in office, it has become apparent to the education secretary that she has limited power to transform the nation's schools. When it comes to the most contentious debates surrounding America's K-12 system--vouchers, standards, incentives, tests--DeVos had more tangible influence as a private citizen in Michigan than she does now in Washington.

Public schools receive little of their funding from the feds--roughly 9.1 percent in the 2015-16 school year, according to the National Education Association--giving Washington minimal leverage over states and localities. The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), seen as a bipartisan rebuke to the perceived overreach of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, further decentralized much of K-12 decision-making to an unprecedented degree. It's true that the secretary has more autonomy when it comes to higher education: Student loans and regulatory guidance, among other things, are within her purview. But this is not where DeVos has focused her decades of advocacy work--nor was it the focus of the entrenched resistance warning of her plans to decimate the nation's public schools.

"It's ironic that she emerged as the Cabinet nominee to draw the strongest and most visceral opposition, given the constraints on the ability of any secretary of education to effect dramatic change in American education," says Martin West, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who served as Mitt Romney's top education adviser in 2012. "Those constraints are greater now than ever given the restrictions on the secretary's authority that were built into ESSA."

The bureaucracy is much more formidable and difficult than I had anticipated--and I expected it to be difficult."

This scaled-down role happens to square with DeVos' small-government worldview. "President Trump and I know our jobs," she told a Republican conference on Mackinac Island, Michigan, one week after visiting Kansas City Academy. "It's to get out of the way." But she clearly had more ambitious aims when taking the job--and has grown frustrated at her inability to achieve them. In several interviews this fall with Politico Magazine, DeVos repeatedly returns to the word "bureaucracy": how it smothers creativity, blocks innovation, slows change to a glacial pace. When I ask what has surprised her most about the job, DeVos does not hesitate. "The bureaucracy is much more formidable and difficult than I had anticipated--and I expected it to be difficult," she says. "It's even worse. And you know, in talking to a lot of the great career staff, it's like everybody nods their heads when you talk about this ... yet it seems like everyone is powerless to do anything about it."

Everyone except for her. DeVos is currently undertaking an administration-mandated review of the department, from the top down, hunting for inefficiency and excess. From what she has seen so far, DeVos tells me she will recommend a "significantly lighter footprint." 

Posted by at November 4, 2017 9:08 AM