Bipartisan Advice for Betsy DeVos

Betsy DeVos

Past DOE secretaries gather in D.C. to give their opinions to Betsy DeVos on ESSA, federal overreach, and what trend worries them the most.

By Wayne D’Orio, School Leaders Now senior editor

The word bipartisan always carries power in Washington, D.C., and this is especially true when the White House is switching from one party to the other. So when the Foundation for Excellence in Education rolled out a lineup Thursday that included two prominent Republicans and two prominent Democrats offering advice to DOE Secretary-elect Betsy DeVos, the session promised to be interesting.

Trading ideas, but not necessarily agreeing, were former DOE secretaries William Bennett, Rod Paige, and Arne Duncan. Roberto Rodriguez, the current deputy assistant for education on the White House Domestic Policy Council, filled out the panel. Former Secretary of State, and current Stanford faculty member, Condolezza Rice moderated.

Bennett wholeheartedly urged DeVos to “get out of the way” when it came to influencing education across the country. “With ESSA, it’s back to the states. State legislatures are bubbling over with ideas,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Duncan had his own ideas. He advised DeVos to concentrate on four goals: access to high quality early education, upping high school graduation rates to 90 percent, eradicating dropout factories, and making sure every student was college and career-ready.

Paige warned DeVos to be cognizant of the “gap between policy makers and practitioners.”

Jeb Bush is the chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. DeVos had been a member of the board, but resigned after being tabbed by President-elect Trump.

Criticizing Unions and Teacher Colleges

Bennett, who served under President Reagan, sounded off on a number of topics, flashing his sense of humor as well as his ideology. When asked what would improve schools the most, he said, “We should get rid of puberty. It’s a hell of a distraction.” He quickly pivoted to a more serious subject. “I think American teachers are, on the whole, good. And many of them are very good. The unions that represent them are bad. Unions are a major obstacle to improvement and progress.”

He went outside the DOE with his criticisms. “I think you’ve got an Office of Civil Rights that’s run amok. These ‘Dear Colleague’ letters about gender bathrooms. I think it’s crazy. It’s gotten way out of bounds.”

Duncan, who served seven years under President Obama, took his own chance to go off-script when someone asked if the nation and states deserved letter grades for education effectiveness. When Bennett and Paige heartedly agreed, Duncan said the nation’s schools of education needed some scrutiny. “If they got a letter grade, that might not be too pretty.”

Can Tech Help Personalize Education?

Rice, who had met the previous day with Vice President-elect Pence, asked about personalized education. In Silicon Valley, where she lives, she said there’s “a sense that technology is always good. It’s neutral, but can it be transformative for a system that has been incredibly resistant to change?”

Rodriguez said he thought technology had helped make great strides in personalized education.

Paige, who served under President George W. Bush, highlighted a small charter school in Houston. He said, “They’ve found a way to have kids own their learning” and the results are terrific.

Asked about their biggest fears for education’s future, Duncan said the “lack of clarity about goals” prevented progress. Bennett chimed in that the lack of progress itself was the real problem. “After all the money and talent [we put into education for decades], our performance is flat.”

Bennett did have one other warning for DeVos. Saying she had to be careful whom she meets with, he added, “When I met with people, I realized they didn’t think I was the Secretary of Education. They thought I was the Secretary of the Treasury of Education. It wasn’t about ideas, it was about bucks.”

To read D’Orio’s previous column–on The Future of Education Under Trump, click here

Wayne DOrio

Wayne D’Orio, a senior editor for School Leaders Now, is an award-winning education reporter. His recent work has detailed how the play Hamilton is changing high school education and how the tiny, Silicon Valley-inspired AltSchool aims to change the entire educational system. D’Orio’s work has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post and Scholastic Administrator.