She's known for blocking efforts to hold Michigan charter schools accountable and has proven through an embarrassing confirmation hearing that she lacks the basic knowledge needed to helm the Education Department, but thanks to some Republican maneuvering and a historic tie-breaking Senate vote from the vice president, Betsy DeVos has been approved as the nation's next education secretary.
The wife of an Amway heir, DeVos has spent millions of dollars influencing Michigan's largely unregulated charter system. And if Detroit's chaotic educational landscape is any indication of what's to come for the country, parents should be concerned. But how much power will DeVos actually wield as U.S. secretary of education, when the service largely falls under state and local control? We talked to an expert to find out.
DeVos is pretty toxic after her turbulent confirmation
Executive branch officials can propose legislation, but they need to find a lawmaker to sponsor it. And that could prove difficult for DeVos, says Wayne State University public policy professor Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson.
"She's damaged goods. Her reputation has been tarnished [by her confirmation hearings]."
Indeed, DeVos appeared not to know the difference between school proficiency and growth during hearing testimony. She also famously said that schools in some places need to keep guns around to ward off the threat of grizzly bears. Both comments made it into an SNL sketch.
"Does that leave her in a position to talk to lawmakers about sponsoring public school reforms and innovations?" asked Sarbaugh-Thompson. "I don’t really think so."
Education secretary is one of the least influential cabinet posts
"It’s a minor position that has more symbolic importance," says Sarbaugh-Thompson. "This was political payback. DeVos' family gives hundreds of millions of dollars to Republicans. This is like giving someone an ambassadorship."
The Department of Education does in fact have one of the smallest budgets of cabinet-level departments and was formed less than 40 years ago, at a time when states almost entirely oversaw their own education systems. Even now, after an increase in federal education spending with the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, the department only operates under a $70 million dollar budget and provides just 8% of K-12 school budgets.
"[She's not overseeing one of] the big departments that have been there for
centuries," said Sarbaugh-Thompson. "It’s a relatively new phenomenon to think of education as a national issue."
She will be able to influence civil rights matters
DeVos will oversee a department that handles issues related to discrimination in schools and colleges through its Office for Civil Rights.
For instance, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the department in the case of a transgender student from Virginia who was not permitted to use the bathroom that corresponded with his gender identity.
The Office for Civil Rights is also responsible for investigating Title IX violations. The law prohibits discrimination based on gender in education and covers sexual assault. Business Insider reports that the Education Department currently has more than 200 open investigations into sexual assaults on college campuses.