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How a powerful senator schooled Betsy DeVos

Several months ago, Sen. Lamar Alexander phoned Education Secretary Betsy DeVos with a message: Back off.

Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate HELP Committee, was furious that a top DeVos aide was circumventing a new law aimed at reducing the federal government’s role in K-12 education. He contended that the agency was out of bounds by challenging state officials, for instance, about whether they were setting sufficiently ambitious goals for their students.

DeVos’ agency quickly yielded to his interpretation of the law — and she “thanked me for it,” Alexander told POLITICO.

Alexander’s heavy hand raises questions about who’s calling some of the shots at the Education Department, an agency he once headed — and to which DeVos came with virtually no expertise in running government bureaucracies.

DeVos has been a lightning rod in the education world and one of the most controversial members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet. She made her name as a school choice activist and billionaire Republican donor before she was nominated to run the Education Department. With Alexander running the key Senate oversight committee, observers say he’s trying to keep her agency on a tight leash.

But some see Alexander’s moves earlier this summer as presumptuous — and believe they not only abruptly changed how the agency is enforcing the law, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, but could translate into little to no federal oversight of state education. Critics note the law imposed certain requirements to protect poor and minority students, whose performance often lags behind their peers’. They worry whether states will adequately track and provide equal opportunities for at-risk kids or face consequences from the Education Department if they fail to do that.

Since Alexander got in the middle, the agency is not as “aggressive or thorough” in its oversight of state education issues, said Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Scott added that he “can’t remember another example of when a lower-level official” was called out in such a way. The Trump appointee whom Alexander blasted, Jason Botel, is viewed with suspicion by some administration officials because he donated to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

“Usually, if you’re going to have a disagreement with the Education Department, then you’re going to have a disagreement with the Cabinet secretary,” Scott said.

Former Republican Rep. John Kline, also an architect of the measure, has said he’s worried states are now getting away with testing plans that violate a key requirement of the law — that states administer the same test to all students annually. The provision is critical so that states are forced to report the performance of all students and the results for poor and minority students are not hidden from view, as they were for decades before federal testing requirements were enacted.

But Kline, of Minnesota, said he thinks Alexander’s “doing what he’s supposed to do” as Senate education chairman.

Alexander, a former Tennessee governor and GOP presidential candidate, as well as former secretary of Education, told POLITICO that his intent is to make sure states are in the driver’s seat when it comes to the law that he helped write.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed in 2015, was widely viewed as a corrective to the federal overreach that followed the George W. Bush-era law that it replaced, known as No Child Left Behind.

DeVos’ aide Botel “obviously hadn’t read the law,” Alexander said, referring to the Every Student Succeeds Act, “so I called the secretary and told her that.”

Others disagree with Alexander’s interpretation of the law. “Lamar Alexander has been in this business a long time and he has a good reputation,” said Charles Barone, policy director for the advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform.

But on this one, it seems he’s breaking the deal,” Barone said, suggesting that some of Alexander’s assertions about the law don’t jibe with Democrats’ understanding.

“We’re going to go back to a world of confusion, so each school district can make itself look as good as it wants to look,” he added, referring to an era before No Child Left Behind when state data on how students were performing masked critical problems.

Just two weeks after the call between Alexander and DeVos, on July 27, the Education Department confirmed to reporters that the agency was changing how it reviews state plans, possibly shielding the biggest federal concerns from public view by first conveying them in telephone calls with state officials rather than on paper.

The review and questioning of states also became less intense through the summer, after Alexander got involved.

Speculation swirled that Botel was leaving the agency or switching jobs. His public critiques of state plans, once lengthy and probing, now mostly ask for missing information or clarifications. Botel did not respond to requests from POLITICO for comment.

States are now finalizing plans required by the law about how they’ll hold schools accountable for whether students are learning and making progress, though there are plenty of signs the Trump administration won’t exercise much oversight.

During her confirmation hearing in January, Democrats demanded to know whether DeVos would ever reject a state’s plan if she found it insufficient. She would not say, only vowing to follow the letter of the law. “I might not agree with every approach that every state takes, but I’m not going to invent new regulations,” DeVos said. “The important thing is, are they following the law or not?”

Alexander went further, telling a group of state and school board leaders in January they should “assume the U.S. Department of Education will say yes” to the plans they’re drafting.

And he was furious when that did not seem to be happening after DeVos put Botel in charge of reviewing those plans in April. Botel, an advocate for racial and social justice who founded a Baltimore charter school chain, didn’t require Senate confirmation because he was an acting assistant secretary.

For example, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to set “ambitious” long-term goals for students, without defining what “ambitious” means. Alexander fought for a provision that explicitly bars the Education secretary from saying what those goals should be.

But Botel told Delaware education officials in June to revamp their goals because they weren’t rigorous enough, without specifying what the goals should be. He told The New York Times in a July 7 article that it’s the secretary’s “responsibility” to determine whether state goals are ambitious.

Alarm bells went off among Senate Republicans. The Times interview “was symbolic of everything we were trying to stop,” a senior GOP aide told POLITICO.

Alexander privately met with Botel at the Education Department shortly afterward. The meeting didn’t go well, according to Alexander.

“I didn’t want … states … to look at Washington and say, ‘Uh oh, nothing’s changed,'” Alexander said. “We don’t have the flexibility that [Congress] talked about. Everything we try to do, the [Education Department] is going to restrict.”

Alexander said he talked to Botel “about that and he didn’t seem to understand it very well.” So he called DeVos.

Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill wouldn’t describe Alexander’s phone call with DeVos or when it occurred. But DeVos had a 15-minute call scheduled with Alexander in the afternoon of July 12, according to her calendar, which was obtained by POLITICO through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“As the Secretary has said repeatedly, her job is to ensure that ESSA state plans comply with the law Congress passed,” Hill said in a statement. “Any state plan that meets the law’s requirements will get approved. Where there is discretion in the law, she and Senator Alexander agree that the Department should defer to the states.”

When asked if he had requested in the phone call that DeVos go so far as to remove Botel, Alexander said: “No, I don’t think I did. I just didn’t like the decisions that he was making and I didn’t try to tell her who she should have in any particular job.”

“That’s her decision until the president nominates somebody.”

Alexander said he feels like his intervention helped the Education Department “from going off track.”

The senior GOP aide said the Education Department “stopped giving bad advice to states” and stopped questioning matters that belong to state school officials, such as setting goals for students and education systems.

“Our concerns about Jason have diminished a lot,” the aide said. “He seems to have gotten the message.”

Besides GOP members of Congress, Botel also earned criticism from education policy wonks for giving inconsistent feedback to states, even as many Democrats were heartened he was asking probing questions.

Scott said Botel’s initial questioning of state education goals “showed the department was serious [about school accountability] — that if you had elements that were inconsistent with the law, you’d get called on it.”

“If goals are factually not ambitious, I don’t see how the secretary can ignore that,” Scott said.

Botel remains at the Education Department. But Peter Oppenheim, a former aide to Alexander who helped write ESSA, is now involved in the agency’s work on the law, though his role remains unclear. The Senate confirmed Oppenheim in August to serve as the Education Department’s liaison to Congress.

“Peter has been a tremendous asset,” the senior GOP aide said. “He knows what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.”

But Democrats like Scott and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking member of Alexander’s committee, say states are getting approved even when their plans violate the law.

Alexander said that kind of criticism “primarily comes from people who are accustomed to telling states what to do. And that’s not what this law allows.”

From the outset of the Trump administration, he said he was determined to find an Education secretary who would embrace that — telling prospective candidates for the job how the law curbed the secretary’s authority to dictate K-12 school policy.

DeVos “easily agreed with that,” Alexander said. “She agrees, like I do, that the secretary’s office is … a bully pulpit, and not a place to issue mandates to 14,000 school districts about how to run the day-to-day operations of their schools.”

Alexander also led a push earlier this year to scrap an Obama rule aimed at guiding states as they designed their systems for holding schools accountable for student achievement — despite protests from state education leaders, the business community and some Republicans like Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio.

“There appeared to be bipartisan — at least acceptance — of the regulation,” Scott said. But the rule was killed on a party-line vote in the Senate and signed into law by Trump.

The Obama regulation didn’t follow the law, Alexander insisted, and it wasn’t necessary because the “law is pretty carefully written.”

Asked what he would do if Education nominees were sent to the Senate who disagreed with his vision for state control, Alexander said he doubted that would happen.

“I would expect President Trump to appoint people who were in favor of local control of schools,” he said. “I don’t think I have to lecture the White House about that. I think that’s what the president said what he believes. So I don’t have much worry about that, but I’m going to watch it carefully.”

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