The question rural school advocates have for Betsy DeVos isn’t whether she knows much about rural education but whether she’s willing to learn.
“She’s coming into the job with no sense of the realities of rural education and no indication that she actually cares,” said Robert Mahaffey, executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust.
“Will that change? Will she be open to those conversations? It remains to be seen.”
DeVos is the daughter of a Western Michigan industrialist and wife of an heir to the Amway fortune. She and her children attended private schools. Her signature education interest is “school choice,” a market-driven approach that let’s parents put their children – and their public tax dollars – into charter schools or private schools through education “vouchers.”
That market-focused solution isn’t a good fit with rural realities, said Mahaffey, whose organization works nationally to strengthen rural schools and the communities they serve.
“This idea of rural schools and portability of funds – so that if a child leaves one school and goes another school, then the dollars follow the child – would just be really deleterious for rural schools with small student populations,” he said.
Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, agreed with that assessment.
“I think there’s a lot of panic right now on school choice and vouchers,” Pratt said. “When you’re looking at rural areas, there’s not school choice a lot of times. It’s going to be difficult” because small districts often don’t have more than one school to choose from.
Voucher advocates like Secretary DeVos say that the threat of losing students to other schools puts market pressure on public schools to improve their performance. Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to give parents the choice to use public education dollars on “public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school of their choice.”
Two Republican senators (Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska) opposed DeVos’ nomination in part because they said her advocacy for vouchers would be a bad policy for their states.
“I’m concerned that Mrs. DeVos’s lack of experience with public schools will make it difficult for her to fully understand, identify and assist with those challenges, particularly for our rural schools in states like Maine,” Senator Collins said, in explaining her decision to oppose DeVos.
In her confirmation hearing, DeVos said distance learning might be one way to create options for rural students. Otherwise, she did not comment on how school choice might work in rural districts.
Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), who chaired DeVos’ hearing, said the new Education secretary would not push school choice on states that didn’t want it.
“Mrs. DeVos has testified before our committee that, as much as she supports the idea of giving parents choices of schools, she does not believe Washington, D.C., should tell Arizona or Tennessee or any other state that they must adopt a school choice or voucher program,” Alexander wrote in a letter to constituents. “Additionally, she recognizes that she has no authority to create a voucher program without Congress passing a new law.”
Alexander said DeVos supports public education and that she “has spent the last 30 years helping low-income children in America have the same choices of schools that the children of wealthier families have.”
Francisco Guajardo, an education professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, says DeVos’ confirmation has already caused disruption and fear.
“In my close to 30 years as an educator, I have not seen the deep concern from folks in rural South Texas like I’ve witnessed in the past months,” Guajardo said. “The unease is not relegated to rural places, however, as the entire public education community is in a state of deep worry.”
Guajardo previously taught at Edcouch-Elsa High School, the rural school where he earned his own high school diploma. He is also founder of the Llano Grande Research and Education Center, a community-focused learning program.
(Disclosure: Guajardo is a member of the board of directors of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.)
Guajardo also said the Trump administration’s stance on immigration is affecting South Texas students. “It became clear that children who were primarily undocumented students had permanently relocated with families south of the [U.S.] border,” he said. “Those stories are becoming increasingly commonplace.”
Mahaffey said DeVos’ Senate hearing indicated she will have trouble with other parts of education policy, as well.
“I’ve been to a lot of Senate confirmation hearings for Cabinet members, in both Republican and Democrat administrations,” he said. “I’ve never seen a nominee so unprepared to discuss the issues and the policies that she will be overseeing.”
Pratt said the National Rural Education Association — a membership organization that serves rural administrators, teachers, and schools — was ready to work with DeVos.
“We have to take a wait-and-see approach and see what we can do and how we can work with her,” he said.
He said one good thing that might come from her confirmation is more flexibility for local school districts.
“If she is true to what she talks about in the sense of more flexibility and more freedom at the state level, then that’s a positive for states,” Pratt said.
Mahaffey said an early indication of DeVos’ stand on rural education will come when the Department of Education releases a congressionally mandated report on rural education in a few weeks.
“Where Mrs. DeVos comes down when the report is released, and what the department does implementing the report’s recommendations … will be critically important,” Mahaffey said.