Week In Review

Betsy DeVos’s second week at the U.S. Education Department: What you need to know

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s second full week on the job was characterized by mixed messages.

She made the department’s first big policy shift, but might not have wanted to. She criticized teachers and said they were doing a great job. And some education leaders criticized her policies while at the same offering to work with her.

It’s a lot of news, and we’re here to help you keep up. Some highlights:

She a lost an internal battle to keep Obama-era protections for transgender students — though it also became a PR win. Accounts of the fight come from the New York Times, which said DeVos couldn’t outmaneuver Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who wanted to kill the old guidance requiring schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of their choice. That prompted some headlines like this one, from Quartz: “Betsy DeVos—of all people—is fighting Donald Trump to protect transgender students.”

One interpretation, courtesy of Justin Cohen: “The more cynical way to view this story, is that the administration was always going to rescind this guidance, and that letting DeVos disagree publicly with Jeff Sessions would give her a temporary, harmless PR coup after a bruising confirmation process.” If that’s true, “Outside political pressure matters, and in this case, that pressure might have forced the hand of a cabinet secretary.”

The New Yorker’s take: “But trying to do something good—if that is, indeed, what DeVos tried to do—deserves no praise when the end result is to be complicit in something bad.”

We’re seeing the influence of others in Trump’s inner circle. Sessions is one — and Education Week explains that his influence over the transgender guidance led to some hand-wringing about whether Democrats should have directed more of their anti-DeVos fervor at the attorney general during his confirmation fight.

Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and the former head of Breitbart News, described Trump’s agenda in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference as having three parts: national security, economic nationalism, and the “destruction of the administrative state.” Trump’s Cabinet nominees “were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction,” he said. And in her own on-stage interview at CPAC, DeVos said she thinks the federal government should have “as light a touch as possible” on education.

Some education leaders say they are open to working with her. Two leading education officials say they don’t support DeVos’s outlook or policy priorities but will sit down with her anyway. Randi Weingarten, head of the country’s second largest teachers union, has committed to touring two schools with DeVos — one that she picks and one that DeVos chooses. “You have to talk, and you have to engage,” Weingarten told the New Republic.

New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña sounded a similar note this week: “I work with everyone,” she said. “I will have conversations with anyone and everyone to ensure that the work we’re doing here is being celebrated and recognized, and we’ll see what time will bring.”

And one notable leader who has offered public support for DeVos, Success Academy charter schools founder Eva Moskowitz, is facing forceful pushback from her own staffers, according to Politico.

That comes after DeVos got into trouble with teachers — then tried to mitigate the damage. DeVos’s comments criticizing teachers at the first public school she visited for being in “receive mode” spread via social media last weekend, drawing sharp criticism from the school itself.

DeVos responded, “Great teachers deserve freedom and flexibility, not to constantly be on the receiving end of government dictates.”

But the episode appeared to cut off goodwill from one education leader: Kaya Henderson, the former head of D.C.’s public schools. Her response on Twitter started with, “Sorry lady. Tried to give you the benefit of the doubt.”

DeVos’s popularity is low but on the rise. A poll found that public opinion of DeVos is back to pre-confirmation hearing levels — with a third of Americans seeing her favorably. During the confirmation process, just 12 percent of Americans viewed her favorably, the same poll found.

devos watch

Asked again about school staff referring students to ICE, DeVos says ‘I don’t think they can’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pressed to clarify her stance on whether school staff could report undocumented students to immigration authorities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos avoided giving a clear answer before eventually saying, “I don’t think they can.”

It was an odd exchange before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, during a hearing that was meant to focus on budget issues but offered a prime opportunity for Senate Democrats to grill DeVos on other topics.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, focused on DeVos’s comments a few weeks ago at House hearing where she said that it was “a school decision” whether to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil rights groups responded sharply, calling it an inaccurate description of the department’s own rules and the Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that says schools must educate undocumented students.

In a statement after that hearing, DeVos seemed to walk back her comments, saying, “Schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” DeVos also referenced the Plyler case on Tuesday, while initially avoiding multiple chances to offer a yes or no response to whether school officials could call ICE on a student.

In response to DeVos’s latest remarks, her spokesperson Liz Hill said, “She did not avoid the question and was very clear schools are not, and should not ever become, immigration enforcement zones. Every child should feel safe going to school.”

Here’s the full exchange between DeVos and Murphy:

Murphy: Let me ask you about a question that you were presented with in a House hearing around the question of whether teachers should refer undocumented students to ICE for immigration enforcement. In the hearing I think you stated that that should be up to each individual state or school district. And then you released a follow-up statement in which you said that, ‘our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child,’ and is well-established under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler and has been in my consistent position since day one. I’m worried that that statement is still not clear on this very important question of whether or not a teacher or a principal is allowed to call ICE to report an undocumented student under federal law. Can a teacher or principal call ICE to report an undocumented student under current federal law?

DeVos: I will refer back again to the settled case in Plyler vs. Doe in 1982, which says students that are not documented have the right to an education. I think it’s incumbent on us to ensure that those students have a safe and secure environment to attend school, to learn, and I maintain that.

Murphy: Let me ask the question again: Is it OK – you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance, and want to understand what the law is — is it OK for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a sacrosanct place for student to be able to learn and they should be protected there.

Murphy: You seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer. I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts that they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: Why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: The question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law? You’re the secretary of education.

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn, and so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Murphy: OK, thank you.

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.