Exclusive Interview: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: Time to ‘Topple’ Blaine Amendments

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The Blaine Amendment that many states have on their books barring religious schools from tuition help is “bigoted,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told Hamodia Monday morning in a fascinating interview. Mrs. DeVos expressed optimism about the potential of it being declared unconstitutional in the current environment, and encouraged the non-public-school community to explore ways of helping this to happen.

Speaking by phone as she traveled the Pennsylvania countryside, Mrs. DeVos discussed a wide-ranging array of topics exploring how the federal government can be harnessed to help yeshivah parents navigate tuition aid in a challenging political system.

“I’m very hopeful and optimistic that the right case or cases are going to ultimately topple what I think has clearly been demonstrated to be a very biased and very negative law, and very bigoted law,” Mrs. DeVos said.

For the Orthodox community and its partners in the nonpublic school systems, there has never been a more potentially-consequential chief heading the federal agency that oversees education in the United States. Rather than accede to conservatives’ longstanding hope of dismantling the agency, President Trump appointed Mrs. DeVos, a deeply principled supporter of school choice, to lead it.

Elisabeth Dee DeVos, 60, is married to Dick DeVos, the multibillionaire former CEO of consumer goods distribution company Amway, and a prominent donor to the Republican Party.

Mrs. DeVos says she’s as shocked as anyone to have the title “education secretary.” She spent decades in Michigan advocating for private and charter schools, and faced fierce opposition from teachers’ unions when she was nominated for her current position.

A groundswell of Orthodox groups rose to her defense, drawing from their experience in working with her in support of vouchers and other tuition-relief initiatives.

“Every parent should be happy with an Education Secretary Betsy DeVos,” Rabbi A. D. Motzen, national director of state relations for Agudath Israel of America, told Hamodia at the time, “as she has championed their right and ability to educate their children in the setting and manner that best meets their unique needs.”

Her confirmation ultimately squeaked by in a 50 to 50 vote in the Senate. Vice President Mike Pence made a rare trip to Capitol Hill to cast the deciding vote, becoming the first Veep to use his vote to confirm a Cabinet secretary.

Mrs. DeVos took over a department established in 1979 by then-President Jimmy Carter and since then derided by conservatives as unconstitutional. In 2012, one of the three departments which then-presidential candidate Rick Perry memorably said was ready for the chopping block was Education. Instead of confronting her detractors head-on, Mrs. DeVos is pursuing a goal to tame the agency and direct some of its $68 billion budget to embrace alternatives to the traditional public school.

But the teachers’ unions who spearheaded the unprecedented campaign against her confirmation continued their battle. Mrs. DeVos was greeted on visits to public schools by demonstrations and harassment. Democratic lawmakers are openly antagonistic to her at congressional hearings. Students openly booed and turned their backs on her when she delivered the commencement address at a historically black college.

Change is hard.

The Education Department was established primarily to advance public school education. As a longtime champion of school choice, how do you see yourself making a difference?

Well, my focus is on individual students and ensuring that we are doing everything we can to allow them to pursue their learning and their education in a way and in an environment that works for each individual student. And that includes removing barriers that too many students have to doing so.

Our newspaper represents a community that — as obviously familiar from your Michigan days — as a matter of faith we educate our children in a private setting. This means that tuition payments eat up the majority of a young couple’s budget in our community. The tax law that just passed allows for a limited tax deduction for K-12 education. Since most of our parents live in Blaine Amendment states, where the states don’t help private-school parents with tuition, the federal government is seen as a more realistic solution. Is anything in the pipeline for a broader dollar-for-dollar, or anything close to that, in federal tax refunds for tuition payments?

As you know, part of the tax bill included a provision to expand 529 savings accounts for use in K-12 schools. So that is one good and important step. But we know that beyond that, too many parents do not have, are not empowered to make the choices for their children because of their income level and because they cannot afford to move from areas that they feel are not the right ones for their child to one that is better.

And the focus of our work at the federal level is to, number one, continue to encourage states to change public policy at the state level, because we know that’s where most of the education policies reside.

You referenced the Blaine Amendment. That is a very big impediment for a number of states. I’m very hopeful and optimistic that the right case or cases are going to ultimately topple what I think has clearly been demonstrated to be a very biased and very negative law—

And bigoted.

And very bigoted law.

That’s one side of the equation for states. From the federal side we are working with the administration on advancing a proposal that will allow for states that opt to be a part of a program that would enhance what’s already going on at the state level. So I don’t want to be, and the administration does not want to be, implementing a federal program that is going to stand the risk of being messed with in the future. We thought the past administration used the department to weaponize things in a way that was negative from many perspectives. We don’t want to be a part of the same thing, doing a similar approach and enforcing programs that states do not want.

I think we can say with confidence that we are going to continue to advance efforts from the federal level that will complement what states are doing. But states are going to have to really continue to lead the way in changing policy to advance choices at a state level.

You just made some pretty significant statements. Regarding the Blaine Amendment, you said you hoped that the proper case will come up that will topple this amendment. Are you referring to the court system? Are you following specific cases that are percolating at the lower levels of the federal court system to see if maybe they’ll reach the Supreme Court and they can then declare the whole thing unconstitutional?

I don’t have a specific one to point to right now. I do know that there are conversations going on in a variety of states that have different angles on that particular issue. And I just have some level of optimism and confidence that one of those is actually going to take off and start challenging it in a meaningful way. But I can’t point to anything specific today.

If I could just add here, it seems to me that the Orthodox community could and should look at ways, you know, some of the impediments that you have experienced, and perhaps examine whether there is a case to be made from one or more of your communities or schools’ perspective.

You mean to take a case and litigate it?

Well, yeah. Or to identify a case and find a partner to help litigate it.

Yes. We are in between a rock and a hard place because on one hand, like you said, anything that goes on at the federal level can one day be weaponized against us. And also, education should be on a state level. It should be as close to the students as possible.

Right.

On the other hand, the Orthodox community — the majority of us are within states not hospitable to private school education.

There is one federal program that yeshivos have greatly benefitted from. I’m talking about the Title 1 program. But it takes a lot of effort to force school districts to allow yeshivos to participate. And recently, some districts have been cutting back by recalculating how they look at the poverty level. Is there anything the federal Education Department can do to help ensure that this program stays relevant for private school students?

I think there are pretty clear requirements under Title 1 and also under IDEA (a federal special-ed program). And I guess I would encourage, if there are obvious inequities and/or examples of the laws not being followed, those should be waived and brought to the attention of the department.

On a personal level, our readers would be interested to hear how school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos became Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. It must have been quite a journey; I don’t think anybody would have believed that.

Well, it was a surprise to me as well. And after 30 years of advocating for parents to have the power to make decisions and choices for their kids, it was very much in sync with what President Trump has advocated for and has stood for. So I was obviously grateful to have been given this opportunity, and I am committed to doing the right thing for individual students.

And keeping in mind that those are the people we’re serving, not systems and buildings and those who really defend a status quo that is indefensible.

It’s no secret that the teachers’ unions were very unhappy with your nomination and your confirmation. I think you’ve got more pushback than any other education secretary in the department’s history. Are you finding that now you’re in office that they’re coming around and willing to work with you on some issues?

We have not found those issues yet.

But I continue to maintain that there are areas around which we can work together. And one of them I think is continuing to encourage flexibility down to the teacher and school building level. There’s been in the last couple or three decades, so much of education policy really oriented around what the federal government said and did, and we have seen as a result that achievement levels haven’t changed at all. They’ve stagnated at the state level.

So the goal is really returning flexibility to the states as Congress intended to do when they passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, and I have encouraged state leaders to have that kind of flexibility to their local districts. They’re going to serve their students a whole lot better than bureaucrats a long way away in Washington, D.C.

As the Orthodox community has been growing in the past decades, we have had the phenomenon of school districts in which today the majority of parents send to private schools rather than public schools, and seek input on local school boards. Teachers’ unions have criticized that, saying that someone who doesn’t send to public schools can’t evenhandedly make decisions for public schools. How would you respond to that?

Well, I think obviously, every taxpaying adult has the opportunity and should have the opportunity to speak into the public education provision in their communities. And I think it’s great when people step up to serve and do so on behalf of all of the kids that they’re [representing].

The president said during the campaign that not everyone is cut out to be the next generation of academics, doctors and lawyers, and that some colleges should focus on practical careers, talk about plumbing, electrical work, technology. This is something that you have spoken about as your goal. How would you intend to advance this?

Well, I join the president in his view that we need to be encouraging students in multiple pathways to higher ed, or post-secondary education, I should say. And we are doing so in a variety of ways.

First of all, ensuring that from where there are federal dollars involved, that we ensure that there’s flexibility around how they’re used, and that schools can use them down into middle schools, to help expose students to a wide variety of options and opportunities for dual enrollment in high school, for apprenticeship opportunities. And the president formed an apprenticeship task force on which I serve with [Labor] Secretary [Jim] Acosta and [Commerce] Secretary [Wilbur] Ross to introduce industry-recognized apprenticeship programs. Again, really making sure that we are supporting and encouraging a whole wide array of options, and giving equal honor and credit to them as viable and good and important.

I think I’ve said before, multiple times, that we’ve suggested for too long that the only path to a successful adult life is through a four-year college or university. And yet we have six million jobs in this country that are going unfilled today that require some level of education beyond high school. But there’s just a mismatch, because students don’t know about them and there’s not a good way for them to find out. We have to change that, and we are committed to doing so.

Thank you.