USA Education

Protest or engage: What should Betsy DeVos opponents do next?

Now that Ms. DeVos has been confirmed as secretary of Education, her opponents need to decide whether or not to engage with her in the hopes of moderating her stances.

Protesters, including Ari Schwartz, center, gather outside Jefferson Middle School in Washington, Friday, Feb. 10, 2017, where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos paid her first visita in a bid to mend fences with educators after a bruising confirmation battle.
AP Photo/Maria Danilova | Caption

In the face of historic opposition, Betsy DeVos has been confirmed as President Trump’s secretary of Education. Some of the groups who opposed her stances on school choice and other issues haven’t let up.

On Friday morning, Ms. DeVos was greeted by protesters at Jefferson Middle School Academy, a public school in Washington, DC, where she was to make her first school visit as secretary of Education. Protesters blocked the school’s entrance and forced her to return to her SUV before the visit could resume.

But some public school teachers think visits like these can change DeVos’s stance towards public schools. Writing in the Monitor’s EqualEd section, Colorado teacher Jessica Moore urged the secretary to “visit our schools, observe, and listen as much as possible.”

These differing stances highlight a dilemma facing DeVos’s opponents now that she has been confirmed as Secretary of Education: Should they continue to face her with megaphones and picket signs, or engage with her in the hopes of moderating her policies?

Similar questions have already cropped up elsewhere in the Trump administration. Faced with sharp criticism for serving on the Presidential Advisory Forum, Elon Musk insisted on the value of staying engaged.

"Attending [the Forum’s meetings] does not imply that I agree with actions by the Administration," he tweeted. "I believe at this time that engaging on critical issues will on balance serve the greater good.”

Farther down the federal totem pole, career civil servants have been viewed as a moderating force. In December, the Monitor’s Zack Colman described the EPA’s staff as “15,000 or so counterweights” who can continue to carry out vital environmental research and enforcement, even as the agency is led by longtime fossil-fuel advocate Scott Pruitt.

Some observers have already expressed hope that the Department of Education’s bureaucrats will play a similar role under DeVos, especially with regards to the research and civil-rights data the DoE collects. As Ruth Curran Neild, a former designated director of the department’s Institute of Education Sciences, recently told Education Week:

I think that research and practice being brought together in new ways has staying power in the field. I'd be very surprised if that changed. At IES, there's a lot of strength at the everyday civil-servant level.... Now, could someone come in and change that? Yeah, [but] those cultures can last...

DoE staff members – and public school advocates outside the department – could also try to sway DeVos’s handling of other department responsibilities, such as discrimination complaints filed against universities, and investigating sexual assaults on college campuses under Title IX.

But on the whole, DeVos may have less power than the storm of opposition suggests. She presides over the smallest of the fifteen Cabinet departments, and the vast majority of education spending comes from state and local governments.

As Paul Reville, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told Business Insider, "The position of secretary of education is, more than anything, an opportunity to be a bully pulpit to express the views of the president.”

But many of the federal grant programs that get funnelled through the Department of Education, including Title I for low-income students and the Individuals with Disabilities with Education Act, now face Congressional budget cuts.

DeVos's opponents could refocus their efforts toward fighting to protect funding for these programs, but doing so will require focusing on Congress, which controls the purse strings, rather than the secretary. Even some congressional Republicans have expressed opposition to cutting these small but important programs.

As Representative Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma told Education Week, "Some of these basic programs like Title I and IDEA are important building blocks for a lot of school districts around the country."