On Bears and US Secretaries of Education

No one sitting on a couch in the comfort of her secure home is afraid of a curious bear cub in a dense forest on the other side of the country. But you’d be absolutely crazy not to panic if a full-grown, furious grizzly had busted its way into your living room.

US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos concludes her remarks to Education Department staff on her first day on the job in Washington, February 8, 2017.
US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos concludes her remarks to Education Department staff on her first day on the job in Washington, February 8, 2017.

The difference is about purpose, power, and proximity. The first is playful and couldn’t do you any harm even if it weren’t a thousand miles away. The second wants to eat you, has the ability to eat you, and is inches away from eating you. This is the grizzly story we should recall when we look back on the confirmation process of the Trump administration’s Secretary of Education.

There have been many explanations for the impassioned fight over Betsy DeVos’s elevation: Some said opponents were projecting anti-Trump resentment onto the nominee; others said years of heated battles over education reform had finally reached a boiling point; some said DeVos’s résumé and confirmation-hearing performance were the issue.

But there was a time when the nomination and confirmation of a US Secretary of Education was yawn-inducing, regardless of who was put forward. Nominees have had varying levels of education experience and a wide array of views. Bill Bennett, for example, is a staunch conservative, strong believer in school choice, had little traditional education experience, and was confirmed by a vote of 93-0.

That, however, was during a time when everyone agreed that the federal government should exert very little influence on the day-to-day operations of schools. It was simply understood that secretaries of education wouldn’t try to fundamentally alter our state- and locally led K-12 system, wouldn’t have the authority to do so even if they wanted to try, and that their focus was on a limited number of things in Washington. Purpose, power, and proximity.

But things started to change with the No Child Left Behind Act when Uncle Sam started having a larger say in school accountability. Then President Obama’s ambitious officials Arne Duncan and John King took it farther and farther. Now secretaries of education were getting involved in standards, assessments, and even teacher evaluations. Now they were scolding Congress for not renewing a federal law quickly enough, issuing massive waivers from clear statutes, and dramatically expanding the reach of the Department of Education’s many offices.

The office of the secretary is no longer faraway and hesitant. To many education stakeholders, it is nearby, strong, and growling.

One of the many virtues of the separation of powers and federalism is that by diluting the power of a central authority, they reduce the toxicity of politics. That is, when power is distributed widely, the countless political concerns, passions, and grievances are notconcentrated in a single location. But when authority is consolidated, one body gets to decide everything. So it stands to reason that the more authority a position has, the more heated the fights over who possesses that seat.

We’ve been conditioned over the last 15 years to understand that the federal government can get involved in just about every facet of schooling—what kids are taught, how they are tested, how teachers are assessed, how schools are rated—so it’s not unreasonable for people to fixate on who leads the US Department of Education. And therefore it’s not unreasonable for people to actively oppose the confirmation of someone with a different worldview. Keep—or should I say bear—in mind that the two most divided votes for education secretary, by far, were the last two.

For certain, the views of these two individuals and the broader political context in which their confirmation debates took place contributed to the close votes. But we should also get accustomed to the idea of intense, even polarizing, debates over future secretaries for as long as the US Department of Education wields such significant authority.

—Andy Smarick

Andy Smarick is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

This post originally appeared on AEIdeas.

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