Betsy DeVos is a horrible education secretary — that is, if you believe almost everything you read and hear from the mainstream media.
Or … maybe we’re getting only part of the story.
DeVos is a Republican and filthy rich, which are two quick strikes against her. She has no background in public education, and is not a fan of the way the department has been running. Bureaucratic changes in a new direction tend to drive liberal politicians and some “professional educators” nuts.
She favors school choice and vouchers, which are as welcome to her detractors as poison ivy. She doesn’t think Common Core is the Bible for education standards in America, and holds the radical and unenlightened view that the folks in states and local districts are smarter than the federal government when it comes to educating kids.
DeVos is a female version of former Education Secretary William Bennett, who during the Reagan Administration turned the education establishment on its ear with his list of reforms. The media commentators were not kind to him, either.
One Idaho professional who likes DeVos — and likes her a lot — is Idaho Superintendent Sherri Ybarra. She attended an education conference a few weeks ago in Washington, and had a chance to meet face-to-face with the new education secretary and listen to her views.
“I liked her from the minute she talked about her belief in flexibility and stability in education,” Ybarra told me. “I liked her even more when she said that it’s time for the Education Department to get out of the way and let us do our jobs.”
Ybarra is not surprised about the negative media coverage. “To be blunt, and I speak from experience, the media believes in big government and they tell only half the story. They’re not giving her a chance. The media talks about programs that are zeroed out of the budget, but what they don’t say is money will be diverted to other areas, while giving schools flexibility to use money for programs that are working.”
Ybarra describes DeVos as supportive. “I have a connection with her. I like her honesty, I like her kindness and I like that she’s always going to keep kids at the forefront.”
Ybarra also knows a thing or two about negative media coverage. She ran for office three years ago with no political experience and had no background in running a state office when she was elected to the position. She was roundly criticized for keeping her initial budget presentation “too short” and some left-leaning commentators declared she was unqualified to serve as the state superintendent. DeVos is hearing much of the same talk.
“I went through exactly what she’s going through,” Ybarra says. “I’ve told my team, ‘Look at her, she’s telling my story almost verbatim.’”
Most of the negative chatter about Ybarra went away fairly quickly. She surrounded herself with smart people, presented sensible initiatives on standards and — yes — added some length and substance to her budget presentations. Moreover, she has accomplished what she set out to do, without turning the office into a political firestorm.
On standards, she said, “We made changes the Idaho way. We are teaching the Idaho content standards, not the Common Core standards. I put together a parent advisory council as I said I would, because I want parents to be at the table while we’re making these decisions, and not after a decision has been made.”
In DeVos, Ybarra says, “she’s striking the right keys talking about flexibility and how she was not going to play in that political arena. Finally, we have somebody who is talking about kids, and not politics. One thing I liked was when she told us, ‘If your consolidated plan looks like Florida’s or Vermont’s, and the rest of the nation, you are not being very innovative, are you?’”
Ybarra has reservations about vouchers and how they would work in small towns in Idaho, which do not have many education options aside from public schools. She’ll be watching developments on that issue closely.
But in the big picture, Ybarra says, DeVos will be fine as the education secretary. Contrary to what the critics are saying, Ybarra thinks DeVos’ focus and heart are in the right place.
Chuck Malloy, a longtime Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly and an editorial writer with the Idaho Press-Tribune. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.