Bush, Obama Education Chiefs Differ Sharply From Betsy DeVos on Limiting Federal Government’s Role

Rachel del Guidice /

Four former U.S. education secretaries implicitly criticized the approach taken to failing public schools by President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, during a summit in Washington.

The Education Department secretaries under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush implied during a panel discussion Thursday at the Reagan Institute Summit on Education that Trump and DeVos were acting to harm, not improve, public education.

DeVos, in her remarks and in an exclusive interview with The Daily Signal, argued that the federal government must take a smaller role in education and talked about ways to do that.

“We’ve … tried to regulate and mandate a lot of things from the federal level,” DeVos told The Daily Signal during the interview at the summit, which reviewed setbacks and opportunities in the American education system since 1983, the year President Ronald Reagan released a bombshell report called “A Nation at Risk.”

“We have invested billions and billions and billions of dollars to try to focus on the lowest-performing schools, and the lowest-income students,” DeVos said. “And yet the results for those students continue to, in most cases, decline.”

The summit is a program of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, which describes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to preserving and promoting the legacy of the 40th president.

The former education secretaries who argued at the event that Trump, DeVos, and other Republican leaders aren’t doing enough to support and fund the federal government’s role in education were Arne Duncan and John B. King Jr., who both served under Obama, and Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings, who both served under Bush.

“If a strategy isn’t working, are you willing to do the hard thing politically and ratchet up the intervention to make sure you get to better outcomes?” King said during a panel featuring DeVos’ predecessors. “And I will say that a lot of that responsibility is with states, but the federal government has a job to do here to enforce the law and to ensure the civil rights guardrails.”

Paige said leaders aren’t doing enough to champion the importance of education.

“We have a national priority that is not focused on education, and I think that education does deserve a higher ranking in our minds,” Paige said. “We need to have the leadership that could go out and help explain to this nation why it is important that we win the education battle.”

Duncan, education secretary from 2009 through 2015, said he is concerned about the state of the country, not just education.

A coalition of business and civil rights leaders, Duncan said, “is a powerful one, morally, economically.”

“I worry about the breakdown of our democracy, again being able to find compromise, working together way beyond just education, reading, and math, how we participate in a civic democracy,” he said.

Spellings said the federal government isn’t doing enough to help minority students advance.

“We all served in a time where we had presidents that were really using that national bully pulpit to drive closing the achievement gap and on and on,” Spellings said. “And I think people are exhausted with education reform or feel like it’s not possible to close the achievement gap.”

“So I think the boulder is drifting back down the hill because of a lack of urgency around the imperative of closing the achievement gap,” she said.

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But DeVos, in addressing the summit before the former education secretaries spoke, said she wants to do away with the status quo.

“This is not something we are going to spend our way out of, and it’s not something we are going to mandate or regulate our way out of,” DeVos said.

“We know that the way we have done things simply isn’t working for too many students, for too many kids, and we need to see things done differently. We need a lot more creativity.”