The secretary of education’s power is ‘highly constrained’ — but experts are still concerned about what Betsy DeVos may do

Betsy DeVos, United States Secretary of Education, arrives to be sworn in by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, not pictured, in the Vice President's Ceremonial Office in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. DeVos squeaked through a history-making Senate confirmation vote to become U.S. education secretary, as Vice President Mike Pence broke a 50-50 tie and Republicans staved off last-minute defections that would have killed her nomination.
What some experts predict Betsy DeVos will do as secretary of education. Andrew Harrer / Pool via CNP /MediaPunch/IPX

Following one of the most contentious confirmation processes for secretary of education the US has ever seen, Betsy DeVos was confirmed on Tuesday by the slimmest of possible margins — 51-50 — with Vice President Mike Pence casting the deciding affirmative vote.

The nomination of DeVos, a billionaire GOP donor from Michigan, elicited strong public outrage, spurring thousands of calls from constituents to their senators. Protests in opposition to her nomination cropped up around the US, and Democratic lawmakers on Monday held a marathon late-night session to oppose DeVos.

Yet, the secretary of education’s power is limited. Many areas of education in the US are largely under state and local control. “The position of secretary of education is, more than anything, an opportunity to be a bully pulpit to express the views of the president,” Paul Reville, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told Business Insider. “The role is highly constrained.”

Despite the constraints of the position, some experts say they worry about the harm DeVos may inflict on the school system in her role.

Betsy DeVos
Betsy DeVos during her January confirmation hearing. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“DeVos’ confirmation raises concerns about maintaining the push and the presence of equity,” Laura Schifter, a lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told Business Insider.

“I think the concern is the absence of the federal involvement in education on important issues like enforcing civil rights laws,” she said.

The department, through its Office for Civil Rights, handles matters related to discrimination in schools and colleges on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, and other characteristics.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the Department of Education in 2014 on behalf of Gavin Grimm, a transgender student who said he was discriminated against by his school district because it did not let him use the bathroom that corresponded with his gender identity.

The Department of Education, along with the Justice Department, later issued guidance on the issue, directing schools to allow transgender students to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity.

Schifter predicts there will be a pulling back from using the protective arm of the ED with DeVos as secretary.

Other experts worry about deleterious effects on public education with DeVos at the helm.

Donald Trump and Betsy Devos
Donald Trump and Betsy Devos. Mike Segar

“She’s endorsing a school choice program unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” David Kirkland, an associate professor with NYU Steinhardt, told Business Insider. “She’s overseen Michigan’s proliferation of unregulated charter schools as well as the siphoning of public funds — chiefly Title I funds — from public education into private accounts. reinforcing stubborn patterns of school segregation but also school failure,” he said.

DeVos can’t do this alone, as individual states have autonomy in making decisions about their school systems in this way. But Kirkland argued that the federal government still sets the tone and messaging for education policy in the US, and he cited adoption of the Common Core under President Obama as an example.

The Common Core — a controversial set of nationwide standards — was adopted by states, rather than mandated by the federal government, but they were certainly backed and incentivized by the Obama administration.

“The federal government plays a tremendous role in creating the environment for educational success and failure throughout the country,” Kirkland said.

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