A comprehensive list of what Betsy DeVos can — and can’t — do next
After barely surviving a contentious confirmation process, Betsy DeVos is now in charge at the Education Department.
She and her fiercest opponents might be surprised by how little power she actually has in the job.
Liberals’ biggest worry about DeVos, aired at the rallies to oppose her and the hundreds of thousands of calls to senators, is that she would “destroy” public education. It will be hard for DeVos to make changes that big on her own. Even a modest school voucher program will face a tough battle to become law.
What she can do is carry out smaller surgical strikes on some of President Obama’s most controversial policies.
Guesses about DeVos’s agenda are, at this point, based more on liberal nightmares and conservative wish lists than anything she’s said in public. So far, DeVos has shown a lot of enthusiasm for her signature cause, vouchers, to the exclusion of much else. In her speech to Education Department employees Wednesday, DeVos praised the department’s “unique role” of keeping students “free from harm.”
But now that she’s officially in power, she’s going to be under pressure to change which students the department prioritizes for protection. The effects might not be obvious to everyone. But they could make schools and colleges a less welcoming place for millions of students — from transgender kids to victims of sexual assault — who have had the federal government in their corner for the past eight years.
DeVos needs Congress to expand school vouchers
The issue: Trump promised a $20 billion federal school voucher program on the campaign trail, and he suggested that he’d get states to kick in enough money to send children living in poverty in the US to private school with vouchers. Picking DeVos, a champion of voucher programs, suggested Trump was serious.
What DeVos can do on her own: Not much. DeVos’s abilities are limited to tinkering around the margins — adjusting existing federal grant programs, for example. But DeVos promised Republican senators she wouldn’t try to force voucher programs on the states, and the amount of money involved in existing grants is small enough that it’s not likely to leverage much change.
A lot of Republicans in Congress support school vouchers, too, and once they’re involved, the options expand. But a national school voucher program is still highly unlikely, even with Republicans dominating the majority of state governments. One of the many hurdles: 38 states have constitutional amendments that block public funding from going to religious schools.
Working with DeVos, Congress could make changes that fall short of a national voucher program. It could pass Trump’s voucher plan, which would turn $20 billion worth of federal education funding into vouchers for kids living in poverty (but wouldn’t, on its own, offer low-income families enough money to pay private school tuition in most places). Republicans could also return to an often-proposed idea to make Title I funding, which goes to schools with a high share of low-income students, into a sort of voucher by allowing the money to “follow” students to any public school they attend.
One conservative idea getting attention in education circles is a federal tax credit scholarship: a tax break for people and businesses that donate to scholarship funds for private schools. Those tax credits, which already exist at the state level, essentially provide federal support to private schools, which eventually benefit from the scholarship funds. Congress could pass them through the tax reform process, though, rather than as part of a more contentious education bill.