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With DeVos pick, school choice is likely Trump education priority

November 23, 2016 at 6:45 PM EST
President-elect Donald Trump has named Betsy DeVos as his choice for education secretary. DeVos, who has never worked in public education, is a prominent advocate of charter schools and school vouchers. What does this pick say about Donald Trump’s education agenda? John Yang discusses the appointment with Education Week’s Alyson Klein.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A deeper look now into one of president-elect Trump’s key Cabinet picks today, and again to John Yang.

JOHN YANG: One of those choices that immediately drew a lot of attention was his pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos. It sends a number of signals about what Mr. Trump intends to do with his education policy, but it also raises some questions.

Alyson Klein of Education Week joins me now to talk about this.

Alyson, thanks for coming.

Betsy DeVos, not necessarily well-known nationwide. Who is she and what does she say or what does her — the pick say about a Trump administration on education?

ALYSON KLEIN, Education Week: So, on the campaign trail, Trump didn’t talk much about cases — about policy, but, when he did, he talked about school choice.

And Betsy DeVos is a longtime school choice advocate. So we can expect that this administration is going to make good on its promise to make school choice a huge priority.

JOHN YANG: What can the federal government do on school choice?

ALYSON KLEIN: So, that’s a great question.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump proposed taking $20 billion in federal funding, which is almost a third of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget, and using that for a school choice program.

It’s unclear if a proposal like that could actually pass Congress. Senator Lamar Alexander, who will actually preside over Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing, put forth a similar proposal last year and it just didn’t get the votes to clear procedural hurdles. So it’s unclear if they will be able to do their grand vision on school choice.

But certainly having somebody like Betsy DeVos talking about school choice from the bully pulpit of the Department of Education could really give some lift to the issue in states and districts.

JOHN YANG: Another thing that Mr. Trump spoke a lot about on the campaign trail was Common Core. He is against it. He doesn’t like it. What do we know about Betsy DeVos’ position on Common Core?

ALYSON KLEIN: Well, she’s clarified her position on Common Core today, saying that she thinks it’s a federal boondoggle.

She’s also said that she’s in favor of accountability and local control. Some school choice advocates had actually been worried that DeVos was a Common Core supporter because she’s on the board of Governor Jeb Bush’s organization, and obviously Governor Bush is quite a supporter of Common Core.

But she made it clear today that she stands with Mr. Trump in opposing the standards.

JOHN YANG: How does she compare, her background compare? She was a philanthropist. She was a chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. How does her background and her experience compare with previous education secretaries?

ALYSON KLEIN: It’s unusual background.

We have never that I can think of really had an advocate at the helm of the department. Our last couple education secretaries, Secretary John King, who is in the post now, Arne Duncan, Obama’s first education secretary, had both worked in school districts, had been — John King was the state chief in New York. Arne Duncan was a school superintendent in Chicago.

Other education secretaries, like Lamar Alexander, actually, have been governors. So it’s unusual to have somebody who has primarily been an advocate.

JOHN YANG: She’s never worked in public education. She’s never run a big bureaucracy or a big organization. Is that what you’re saying?

ALYSON KLEIN: Yes, that’s correct.

JOHN YANG: What’s been the reaction to her being named as his nominee?

ALYSON KLEIN: Depends on who you ask.

School choice advocates are really excited to have one of their own, one of their champions headed to the Department of Education. Teachers unions are really unhappy with the pick. They picked up on what you picked up on, that she doesn’t have a background in a school district.

And they are also opposed to this idea of vouchers, which they say siphon off money for public schools.

JOHN YANG: And that’s been an issue for some time now in public education.

ALYSON KLEIN: Yes, absolutely.

The idea of creating a federal school choice program has been something that Republicans have wanted to do for a really long time. The closest they have come is a voucher program for the District of Columbia. But with DeVos in the Education Department, they may really be able to that vision further.

JOHN YANG: Any sense will she have any trouble getting confirmed, do you think?

ALYSON KLEIN: I would expect not.

Senator Alexander put out a very supportive statement on her confirmation today. She’s certainly donated to a lot of Republicans. And so they may really look upon her appointment favorably.

JOHN YANG: Alyson Klein helping us understand who Betsy DeVos is, thanks so much for coming in.

ALYSON KLEIN: Thanks for having me.

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