DeVos’s U-turn on local control of schools

Ed secretary echoes Trump call for schools to reopen

IF THERE’S ONE thing her most fervent admirers and legion of detractors could probably agree on it is that Betsy DeVos is the picture of a doctrinaire conservative. The polarizing US education secretary has rarely seen a small-government, private sector approach to a problem that she didn’t like.

The wealthy Michigander is a fan of giving families vouchers to use at private schools if they choose. She has pulled back on efforts to exert more federal control over private lenders who critics say take advantage of unsuspecting higher education student borrowers. And she has always stood firm on one of the most sacred conservative principles in education — that schools should be controlled at the local level and not by distant Washington bureaucrats.

Suddenly, however, the education secretary has caught a case of Great Society fever to rival any symptoms ever exhibited by Hubert Humphrey. Blame it on the mid-July fumes wafting off the swampy Potomac, but DeVos has come down with a bad case of big-government chutzpah.

The champion of local control is suddenly on an all-out campaign insisting that schools across the country must reopen to in-person learning this fall.

“I think the go-to needs to be kids in school, in person, in the classroom,” she said over the weekend on CNN as she took to the Sunday media circuit to press the case that President Trump started making days earlier.

DeVos has echoed Trump’s threats to withhold federal funding from districts or states that don’t comply, though the administration’s ability to actually follow through on that is limited.  (So far, the threats don’t seem to be working, as school officials in San Diego and Los Angeles, the country’s second biggest district, announced yesterday that they will begin the fall with all-remote learning.)

There is wide agreement that in-person learning would be far better for students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. But that has to be weighed against all the issues at play with a pandemic that has claimed more than 130,000 lives across the country and is now surging in a number of states, including California.

DeVos’s sudden embrace of a heavy-handed federal reach on schooling has conservative scratching their heads.

“Betsy DeVos six months ago would have thought this was ludicrous,” Michael Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education research organization, told the New York Times.

DeVos’s sudden demand that schools follow her DC dictate may be wholly inconsistent with her lifetime of conservative thought, but it is very much in line with what looks like a no-holds-barred effort by Trump to get the economy restarted in advance of the November election no matter what.

“We have so politicized the situation we don’t know who we can trust, and it’s become very clear that we can’t trust her,” Keri Rodrigues, the founder of Massachusetts Parents United and president of the National Parents Union, a coalition of advocacy groups across the country made up of parents from communities of color, told the Times. “It’s as if the Trump administration gave her one sentence that she was supposed to stick to: Open the economy by any means necessary. Our lives are not valuable to them at all. We are a means to an end.”

Another local figure jumping into the national fray is Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who ripped DeVos for her insistence that schools reopen. “You point to a private sector that has put profits over people and claimed the lives of thousands of essential workers. I wouldn’t trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child,” Pressley tweeted at the education secretary.

Boston Herald columnist Jaclyn Cashman said Pressley “should be ashamed of herself for politicizing the issue of whether children should go back to school in the fall.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Of course that’s exactly what critics of DeVos and Trump say they are doing.

In the end, all Beltway bluster from the Trump administration is not likely to have much impact on local decision-making. Districts will weigh all the factors at play, including the state of the pandemic in their region, and make a decision locally about how best to handle schooling in the fall. In other words, they’ll follow what used to be the Betsy DeVos playbook.