This is the moment Betsy DeVos has been waiting for.
With the president’s proposed budget calling for a major investment in charters and private schools, DeVos faces a test that could define her tenure as Education Secretary — selling school choice to America.
Donald Trump’s budget blueprint seeks to redirect tens of millions from student financial aid and teacher training, among other programs, to charter schools and private school tuition vouchers, including a $1 billion boost in Title 1 funds that for the first time would follow students to the public schools of their choice.
While only a down payment on Trump’s campaign promise to plow $20 billion into school choice, the budget plan represents a radical departure for education policy. DeVos’ reputation will hinge on her ability to convince not just lawmakers but the American public that large pots of taxpayer money should go to educational options besides traditional public schools, including helping working class families with private school tuition.
“The budget places power in the hands of parents and families to choose schools that are best for their children by investing an additional $1.4 billion in school choice programs,” DeVos said in a statement Thursday.
The reality is that DeVos — a billionaire who long fought for school choice causes before taking office — may have a hard time persuading even some members of her own party, who have previously rejected many of these ideas and who are sure to balk at cuts to other programs viewed as essential by educators and parents in their districts.
Still, with Republicans controlling all branches of government and school choice a priority for party leaders who see it as a way to help low-income, urban children while enlisting the support of their parents, nobody is writing off her chances.
“Are they going to raise holy hell?” asked Sandy Kress, education adviser to former President George W. Bush. “Yes. Will they continue to beat her up? She expects it. They expect it, there’s no question about it.”
“Coming out of the chutes, this is going to be a heavy lift,” said George Miller, the former Democratic ranking member of the House education committee.
Still, despite what Miller referred to as DeVos’ “credibility gap” with many Democrats, he said an expanded investment in school choice “may be the easiest program for her to prosecute.”
“She’s familiar with it, she’s supported it,” said Miller, currently senior education adviser at Cengage.
Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees K-12 education and a strong supporter of school choice, calls DeVos as “the best spokeswoman out there are on these ideas.”
He described her as professional, articulate and strong. “Certainly in the House of Representatives, where she hasn’t been yet, I think she’ll be very well received,” Rokita said.
“We have a partner in the president and his first down payment on that promise was Betsy DeVos, and he continues making good payment on that promise and this budget request is the next visible sign of that,” Rokita said. “A lot of folks in this town don’t understand still there’s a new guy calling the tune.”
The “new guy” — Trump — took DeVos with him recently to a private Catholic school in Florida with a large percentage of students whose tuition is paid by a state tuition scholarship program that many believe could be a model for the federal government. It was Trump’s first visit to a school as president.
DeVos is expected to go back to Capitol Hill to answer questions about the administration’s budget proposals from the House Appropriations Committee — her first public appearance since the contentious confirmation process that transformed her into a punching bag for the left.
Making her task more difficult, DeVos is coming out of a rocky first month in which a series of unforced errors did little to allay critics’ concerns about her commitment to public schools, her expertise or for that matter, her savvy. Now, she’ll also have to justify the administration’s 13-percent hit overall to the Education Department — including to many of its popular programs designed to boost public schools in areas such as after-school programming and teacher training.
Signaling the fight ahead, a broad swath of the education world blasted Trump’s budget proposal on Thursday.
“Either we support public schools or we undermine them, the children that attend them and the nation,” said Thomas J. Gentzel, executive director and CEO of the National School Boards Association. “That is the choice before us.”
But DeVos has long prided herself on standing up to the educational establishment and she has the confidence of the president, Kress said.
“Do the choice advocates think she’s in any way impaired to make that message or deliver it?” Kress asked. “I don’t think so at all. I think they’ll just sort of say, ‘this is why we picked her.’”
In fact, Greg McNeilly, a longtime political adviser to DeVos, said not only is DeVos “impervious” to such criticism, she thrives on it.
“I think she’s more uncomfortable if she isn’t being criticized,” McNeilly said. “She takes the criticism as a sign she must be doing something right. She has such a firm conviction that the education establishment has gotten a lot of things wrong. If they’re completely OK, then I think she would be uncomfortable.”
A proposed 50 percent boost in charter school funding could find more of a receptive audience among both Republicans and Democrats, since charter schools have long had more bipartisan support than programs that use public funds to cover private school tuition.
Other parts of Trump’s proposal that would allow working class families to use public funds for private school tuition might to a tougher sell. Republican senators such as Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Susan Collins of Maine were so concerned about channeling public funds to private school tuition they sought assurances from DeVos during her confirmation that she wouldn’t impose such programs on their home states.
The issue of making Title I dollars portable has also been a hot-button issue, with some Republicans opposing the idea during the fight over overhauling the No Child Left Behind law. Making the change would also likely require lawmakers to go back into the law that replaced it, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which many would be reluctant to do.
A more palatable way to support these ideas expected to be rolled out later by the administration is a tax credit scholarship proposal, which would provide tax incentives connected to donations to a third-party organization that helps low-income students pay for private school tuition.
Rokita said the effort is based on a bill he’s introduced in the House, which he “absolutely” expects to get traction.
“I would be astonished if that bill wouldn’t move. We’re working hard on it,” Rokita said.
Kress contends a tax proposal has a good chance of passing — in part because it could be wrapped into a larger tax plan through the budget reconciliation process, which wouldn’t require 60 votes in the Senate.
A spokesman for DeVos said she wasn’t available to discuss her strategy on selling the budget proposal to Congress. But he emphasized she’s been working hard to build bridges with a variety of groups — including making a phone call to Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking member of the Senate education committee.
Despite those efforts, there are few signs that DeVos has succeeded in mending fences with many of her opponents. She missed no opportunity to talk about choice — one particularly inflammatory misstep was her statement calling the nation’s historically black colleges and universities “pioneers” in school choice.
DeVos also angered teachers at a D.C. public school she visited when she told a conservative news outlet that they were “waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child.”
The comment spawned a torrent of social media criticisms from D.C. teachers and others.
“Sorry lady. Tried to give you the benefit of the doubt,” Kaya Henderson, the former head of D.C. Public Schools, tweeted. “But this is so amateur and unprofessional that it’s astounding. We deserve better.”
Then, DeVos told college students at the Conservative Action Political Conference that professors tell them “what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think” — minutes before she shuffled across Washington to meet with a dozen public university presidents.
The proposed budget on Thursday is already creating new strain.
“As recently as yesterday, Secretary DeVos indicated an interest in supporting state and local education agencies, and ‘to returning power to the states whenever and wherever possible,’” Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the superintendents organization AASA, said.
“The idea that this administration thinks that schools can do this work — and the administration claim they support this work — without supporting teachers and teacher leaders, and their professional development, is a deeply disconcerting position,” Domenech said.