Betsy DeVos’ interviews show a willingness to cut the Department of Education

In her second week on the job, DeVos has shown she distrusts department staff and plans an audit of all programs.

President Donald Trump accompanied by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, speaks during a meeting with parents and teachers, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. CREDIT: AP/Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump accompanied by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, speaks during a meeting with parents and teachers, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. CREDIT: AP/Evan Vucci

Betsy DeVos has only been education secretary for a week and a half, but it’s already clear that she will make decisions that would cut the Department of Education significantly, undermine civil rights and protection from sexual assault, and continue more partisan hires.

During the confirmation process, DeVos, who does not have any experience running or working for public schools, showed a lack of knowledge of major federal laws and education concepts. She refused to commit to collecting data on civil rights matters, keep guidance on how to investigate campus sexual assault, or not cut public education funding. DeVos’ only experience with education has been through her work as a philanthropist and a political operative.

Here’s what we can expect:

Devos wants to cut funding for the department.

Although DeVos tried to strike a conciliatory tone in her first speech as education secretary before the department staff, her remarks since then have been fairly hostile to the department — promising audits and assuring Americans that the department could do much less.

In an interview with Michael Patrick Shiels of the Big Show radio program on Tuesday, DeVos said that although she has only been on the job for few days, she can “guarantee there are things the department has been doing that are probably not necessary or important for a federal agency to do.”

DeVos added:

“We’ll be examining and auditing, and reviewing all of the programs of the department and really figuring out what is the core mission and how can the federal department of education really support and enhance the role of the departments in the states. Because really when it comes down to it, education and the provision of education is really a state and local responsibility to a large extent. So these sorts of things will be part of our focus in the coming weeks and I think we’ll have some good robust conversations about that.”

In an interview with Axios on Friday, DeVos responded to a question about whether the federal government should have any role in education by saying, “It would be fine with me to have myself worked out of a job, but I’m not sure that — I’m not sure that there will be a champion movement in Congress to do that.”

During President Donald Trump’s campaign, he said he wanted to cut the department significantly, if not eliminate it entirely. The Department of Education’s responsibilities include data collection, awarding Pell grants and federal financial aid through loans, and provides oversight over states in cases of discrimination. Although it would be difficult to eliminate the department, and it is not likely to happen, it could be significantly weakened depending on what is requested for the education budget.

A conservative group with ties to the Trump administration as well as DeVos in particular, published a document pushing for the dismantling of the department, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday. The Council for National Policy document is a proposal for a “gradual, voluntary return at all levels to free-market private schools, church schools and home schools as the normative American practice.” The proposal to abolish the department dovetails with the long-held views of many Republicans, and Trump suggested during the 2016 campaign that the agency could be “largely eliminated.” The Council for National Policy took the document down after the Post reported on it.

Devos has little regard for civil rights or sexual assault.

In her interview with Axios, DeVos said that the department tackled important civil rights issues, but did not acknowledge that those issues still exist today. She said Title IX and school desegregation are important issues, but when asked if there are “remaining issues like that” where the federal government should intervene, she responded, “I can’t think of any now.”

That statement may be cause for concern for educators, parents, and advocates for disadvantaged students, since it indicates DeVos could propose making cuts to the Office for Civil Rights. That office handles complaints about Title IX violations, which includes women’s access to sports and the investigation of campus rape, the rights of students with disabilities, and racially disparate student discipline.

These issues have not been resolved. School segregation by race and class persists. In K-12 education, black students are 1.9 times more likely than white students to be expelled from school without educational services. Black students were also 2.3 times more likely to be disciplined through involvement of officers.

A 2015 national poll from the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one in five women who attended a residential college said they had been sexually assaulted. Although two in five girls play sports in school now, compared to 1 in 27 when Title IX was enacted, they still have far fewer opportunities to play sports in high school compared to boys. Girls are also more likely to drop out of sports earlier in life.

DeVos’ vision for the department will become clearer when it comes time to prepare a budget, said Lindsey Tepe, senior policy analyst for education policy program for New America. By April at latest, Americans will know what DeVos intends to improve funding for — and what areas she would like to reduce funding for.

“If they have hope of implementing a large scale voucher program or putting any money behind the initiatives they’ve spoken to it has to be brought up in the budget and it as to be done right away,” Tepe said. “You’ll see if certain offices, such as the Office for Civil Rights, get the funding they need to support the current personnel they have in place … The dollars really talk.”

DeVos needs staff with expertise. She may not welcome them.

It is particularly important for DeVos, someone with no experience working in a public school, to surround herself with people with the experience and expertise to help her guide the department, said Tepe. However, her choices so far have been mostly political and ideological rather than veterans of the department who have worked through both Republican and Democratic administrations.

“In the next couple weeks if she doesn’t start assembling people who have some leadership in the department, who have policy chops, it’s going to be really troubling,” Tepe said. “It should be troubling for everyone frankly.”

But DeVos does not appear to trust staff at the department. Townhall, a conservative website, interviewed DeVos and published a piece on Thursday that says she believes there are people in the department “who are committed to her not succeeding” and that she “pledges to do whatever can be done to render them ineffective.”

The department has a fairly small staff for the number of programs it administers, so it wouldn’t be easy to cut the department without significantly hampering its effectiveness, Tepe said. According to the Congressional Budget Office, more than 95 percent of the department’s 2012 budget was obligated for grants for students attending college or to state and local governments.

“The department is, for the number programs they administer and for amount of responsibilities they do have, it’s a really small staff,” Tepe said. “A lot of new leaders coming in will do these audits, but the tone and buying into conventional wisdom that ‘Of course there must be waste,’ from the get-go is going to sour a lot of relationships with people she will depend on and rest of her appointees will depend on to enact any sort of agenda.”

There is also some evidence that the department may not be properly vetting staff. A field organizer for Trump’s campaign, Teresa UnRue, left her position at the department only a few days after she was hired, Politico reported, after it was discovered that she made Islamophobic statements on social media.