As Betsy DeVos begins her job as Education Secretary, some of her opponents fear she will radically upend the entire American school system, while her supporters hope she will quickly push through what they see as much-needed reforms. Here is a look at what the Education Secretary can and cannot do.
LESS POWERFUL THAN PREDECESSORS
Critics, calm down. Whatever changes DeVos is intending to make, she will have fewer powers to implement them than her two predecessors in the Obama administration. The Every Student Succeeds ACT, a landmark bipartisan measure passed in late 2015, curtails the authority of the Education Secretary and gives more power to states to make decisions about day-to-day matters such as teacher preparation, student assessment and classroom routines. As Lamar Alexander, the Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee said, "We will be swapping a national school board for what she (DeVos) believes in, which is a local school board."
POWER OF THE PURSE
DeVos' ability to significantly redistribute funds — or, in the words of her critics, to defund traditional public schools in favor of private and charter schools — will also be limited. First off, the federal government is only responsible for about 10 percent of national education spending. The rest is provided by states. Any major budget changes — including President Donald Trump's campaign proposal to channel $20 billion to school voucher programs — will require congressional approval. That said, the Secretary of Education does control the department's internal budget and may allocate more money for research of the topics she is interested in. She will also control funding for the Office for Civil Rights.
SHAPING THE AGENDA
One area where DeVos will have significant sway is the bully pulpit. As the head of the Education Department, she will be able to shape and influence the education agenda. While DeVos won't mandate that states launch school voucher programs or increase the number of charter schools, she may certainly be a vocal advocate for those policies. "Even though she may not have the authority to dictate what states do ... she could have a greater amount of influence, but it would be softer influence, not because it's mandated," says Mike Hansen, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. DeVos could also shape policy by promoting various education reforms, experiments and other initiatives that could then be adopted by schools across the country.
DeVos will have key input on another issue of concern: civil rights. In her role overseeing the department's Office for Civil Rights, DeVos will decide how aggressively her employees will enforce and monitor compliance in areas like discrimination, LGBT rights, special needs and sexual assault. "She has the ability to determine the department's stance with respect to enforcing civil rights protections for students and traditionally we've seen Republican administrations take a less aggressive stance with respect to civil rights enforcement than we see under Democratic administrations," said Martin West, associate professor of education at Harvard University.
After a bruising confirmation fight, DeVos exhorted both advocates and her detractors to "set aside any preconceived notions" and work together in a constructive way. In an apparent attempt to mend fences, she promised to advocate for inclusion, the rights of low-income and special needs children and ensure a safe environment in classrooms. She even offered a joke about herself. Referring to her much-ridiculed comment during her confirmation hearing that guns may be needed in remote schools to protect children from grizzlies, DeVos said that the nomination process "has been a ... bit of a bear."