Betsy DeVos’s Non-Traditional Experience May Be What Public Schools Need

When something is clearly failing, trying a new approach is the logical thing to do. And when it comes to cabinet positions, politicians and policy wonks usually get the jobs, and the status quo is largely maintained. Perhaps that’s why it’s so jarring for many that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has different experience than anyone who has held the post before.

The U.S. Department of Education doesn’t educate. It oversees tens of billions of dollars in programs, ranging from anti-poverty funding for low-income K-12 schools to college student loans. But it’s also a big bureaucracy in need of an overhaul. A fresh perspective could be the most direct way to get that done.

DeVos brings a different perspective. She is the first education reform activist to have the job. Past secretaries include a former governor, the former chief of Texas public schools, and a former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Every one of them has had a background in politics or public education.

it’s a big bureaucracy in need of an overhaul. A fresh perspective could be the most direct way to get that done.

This is hardly surprising, considering President Carter created the Department of Education in 1979 to fulfill a campaign promise to the National Education Association. Carter promised the teachers union that he would give it a more prominent place in federal education policymaking in exchange for the powerful organization’s support.

“That’s true,” said NEA executive director Terry Herndon. “There’d be no department without the NEA.”

But a federal agency shouldn’t exist to serve a public-employee union. It should exist to serve education. A cabinet secretary with a non-traditional background might be the best way way to get that done.

DeVos may not have the background of a traditional education secretary, but she is hardly without experience in the education movement.

But a federal agency shouldn’t exist to serve a public-employee union. It should exist to serve education.

Andy Smarick, a resident fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, said that it is this ability to effect change that has some in the education establishment worried. When looking at successful education reformers of late, he said they have unexpected backgrounds, too.

“They have new ideas and they’re much more willing to bring about dramatic change in the system,” Smarick told Opportunity Lives. “So, if people are looking for dramatic, lasting change, recent history shows us that the leaders most likely do that in education are those who have these non-traditional backgrounds.”

While this does mean a learning curve when compared to someone with a more traditional background, DeVos has a strong history in school choice advocacy.

“Secretary DeVos believes deeply in school choice and empowering families, and this is something that lots of families and lots of people on the right side of the political spectrum believe in,” Smarick said. “So, if you’re going to advance that kind of change, that’s big. That’s very different than the general way that our public system has been oriented for 100 years.”

“So, if people are looking for dramatic, lasting change, recent history shows us that the leaders most likely do that in education are those who have these non-traditional backgrounds.”

“Fans of school choice, of charter schools, of scholarship programs, may very well look at her background and say ‘she has the perfect background’ because she has a non-traditional résumé and she has a track record of working on these things,” he added.

Through the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, which she founded with her husband, she has given hundreds of millions of dollars to support five different causes, with education foremost among them. She and her husband have also directly supported schools in their home state of Michigan. She’s worked with different nonprofits, think tanks and PACs that support school choice.

The question really comes down to a desire to change, and to take meaningful steps to disrupt the status quo to get it done.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder on this,” Smarick said. “If you think we need a massive revolution in schooling, you might look on her resume much more fondly than somebody who thinks things are genuinely quite good and that she might overturn the apple cart.” For those of us who think it’s about time to spill those proverbial apples and start again, her out-of-the-box background could be just the ticket.

Amelia Hamilton is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @ameliahammy.

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