An interview with Betsy DeVos

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos interviewed earlier this year in her office at the U.S. Education Department in Washington. (Photo file: AP/ Jacquelyn Martin)

The federal government in many cases has intruded on states’ issues and states’ areas of responsibility as well as trying to engineer things from the federal level in a way that is not helpful to students, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says in a Q&A.

Editor’s note: Below is an Associated Press interview with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos conducted last week.

President Trump has talked a lot about undoing some of the Obama legacy. When it comes to education can you talk to us about the areas where you think you’ve been successful in this regard? What is the federal role, the federal government’s role in education and how do you accomplish those goals?

DeVos: Well those are a number of questions. Let me start with what we believe the federal government’s role is in education and that is a much less heavy footprint than has been present in recent years. We really believe that states are the best laboratories of democracy on many fronts and we are in the middle of moving to implement the ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which really dissolves power back to the states and gives them a lot more flexibility around meeting the needs of students in their unique states and with their unique situations. And we think that there has been an overreach in many cases on the part of the federal government in really intruding on states’ issues and states’ areas of responsibility as well as trying to engineer things from the federal level in a way that is not helpful to students overall.

What about the Obama legacy? Have you been successful in looking at things that were done before and were …

DeVos: From a higher ed perspective there were a number of regulations which we think have been very onerous and have targeted certain kinds of institutions based on their tax status and has been to the detriment ultimately of both those institutions and the students that are served. Those are areas in which we are pausing the regulations around gainful employment, borrower defense repayment, and we’re really examining a lot of other regulations and letters that have been put out in the course of the last eight years to see what ones really are serving students well and are really respectful of everyone involved.

Just to follow up on that. You talked about institutions based on their tax status, so the for-profit schools, many of them have been found to have defrauded students, that have not provided the education that they were promised and the ability to find jobs. Has the fact that President Trump had a for-profit college, Trump University, that was sued for fraud complicated your efforts in this area at all.

DeVos: Well, I go back to what I said originally about the fact that we believe the last administration really stepped much more heavily into areas that it should not and at the expense of a broader look at all institutions. Look, we are concerned and we are, we want to make sure that students have the best chance for a bright future. That involves first of all being much more aware of the full range of options and pathways of higher education so that’s a principle that you’re going to hear the president and me and others in the administration talk more broadly about. We have not done a good job at encouraging students to look at all their options when pursuing post-high school education. Career and technical education has been sort of diminished and dismissed over many years. That is an area we believe has bright promise for many students and needs to be elevated and honored in a way that really is, notes the opportunities there. But back to your original question around students and the opportunities they have, let’s be clear, no student should be defrauded and in case of fraud there should be remedy. But we also know this approach has been unevenly applied and if there’s going to be regulation around some institutions we believe it needs to be fairly applied across the board. And so going back and going through a whole proper process to look at this area and these regulations involves really a balanced approach involving feedback and input from all stakeholders, students, institutions alike.

Can you talk to us a little bit about your relationship with President Trump and Vice President Pence? How often do you see them? Do you talk to them? Do they ask for your feedback? Do you get their feedback? And also President Trump’s disapproval ratings are about 57 percent. Does serving an unpopular president complicate your efforts in your job?

DeVos: Well, we just had the vice president here in this building on Monday. He came joined for lunch with a small group of our team and then a broader group for a little bit of conversation and discussion. As you well know, as governor, Vice President Pence was very, very involved in education issues in Indiana and as a congressman before that and has been a real champion of the work that we’ve been doing, as has the president, frankly. And my interactions with the president have been consistently very encouraging, very positive, empowering of the work we are doing here. In terms of his leadership, I think he is a very strong and effective leader, in first of all selecting strong people to lead in the various agencies and departments and then giving us the opportunity to do what we do best and that is to pursue the policies and the direction that he has set out in a broad way and that each of us have expertise in pursuing in more granular detail.

In recent days, we had, there was a leak of the internal Justice job posting related to affirmative action. We see Justice is going ahead and pursuing the case against Harvard on claims of discrimination filed by Asian-American students. The Education Department hasn’t weighed in on this, on the topic of affirmative action. Do you favor affirmative action programs in college admissions?

DeVos: Well, I think this has been a question before the courts and the courts have opined. We have not been involved with the Justice Department’s posting and again I think as they have stated, this was an internal issue and one that they are continuing to move forward on. I think the bottom line here is that we want an environment where all students have an opportunity, an equal opportunity to get a great education whether that’s at the K-12 level or the higher-ed level. And it’s our goal to see all students have the opportunity to succeed, no matter where they come from, no matter their family background, no matter their family income and that’s my goal, that’s my personal goal and I know that’s the goal of our team here at the Department.

There has been some mistrust of you and the department among the minority communities after comments you made about the historically black colleges and universities, the action of LGBTQ, transgender bathroom issue. How do you counteract that? How do you let these communities know just what you are saying, that you are on their side?

DeVos: Well, let me just comment on what I think was an out of context comment and a misunderstanding with the HBCUs. When I talked about it being a pioneer in choice it was because I acknowledge that racism was rampant and there were no choices. These HBCUs provided choices for black students that they didn’t have. I think that that comment was — while I could have said it, stated it much better — my intention was to say they were pioneering on behalf of students that didn’t have another choice. This was their only choice. And at the same time I should have decried much more forcefully the ravages of racism in this country. My last three decades have been working on behalf of primarily minority families and students to allow them to make choices for their kids. And to think anything otherwise, my feelings otherwise for providing opportunities for minority students is just absolutely false. I mean, that’s where my heart has been for three decades is to really empower and allow all families the same kind of opportunities I’ve had for my kids.

Have you reached out to some of the organizations, NAACP and others to tell them what you are just telling us?

DeVos: I’ve had these conversations with some of the African-American organizations that represent higher education, but probably not as explicitly as I am right now.

Just to follow up. I know you said the Department of Education hasn’t been involved in that internal memo with the Justice Department.  Do you personally believe that race should play a role in admissions? Race, ethnicity?

DeVos: Well, what I believe is that we have to change the dynamic for kids on the K-12 system that for all too many kids who are minority students is failing them. It is not fair to think that when students transit through a K-12 system that is not preparing them for beyond, that somehow we are going to waive a magic wand and things are going to be perfect for them at the higher-ed level. So I’ve always said: What we should really be talking about is what are we doing to ensure that every single child no matter their family income, no matter their racial background, no matter their zip code has equal opportunities to access a quality education. We have seen decades of top-down mandated approaches that protect a system at the expense of individual students. I am for individual students. I want each of them to have opportunity to go to a school that works for them.

After your day long listening session on campus sexual assaults, you said, “We can’t go back to the days when allegations were swept under the rug,” but also added that it’s “an issue we’re not getting right.” Do you plan to withdraw the Dear Colleague letter the Obama administration issued to campuses telling them what they need to do pursue investigations of allegations of assault?

DeVos: What we are continuing to do is listen to and talk with individuals from all perspectives on this issue because as we know as a fact no matter where we’re coming from, whether you’re a survivor, whether you’re an accused individual, whether you’re part of an institution charged with navigating these issues, it is not working right and well for anyone. All the individuals I’ve talked with have said we need to have a process and a system that we know is right and fair for everyone involved. So, we’re continuing to have those conversations and are continuing to learn and to research what some of the options might be going forward. But we know we have to get this right. We have to get this right on behalf of all students. I think it goes without saying, but I’ll say it, sexual assault anywhere at any time is horrible and we need to decry it and at the same time we need to ensure that the processes to address it when it happens are done right.

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