Learning from DeVos’s Deregulatory Dilemmas

Former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s tenure was marked by an unprecedented level of controversy and outrage. Yet, as Robert Maranto convincingly argued in a recent AEI report, “Outcomes over Image,” a clear-eyed look at her time in office reveals a substantial degree of success in pursuit of a conventional conservative policy agenda.

The disconnect, in my judgment, was primarily attributable to the fact that DeVos was the first secretary of education to take office after the role of the Department of Education (ED) had been—as President Obama might have put it—fundamentally transformed. Traditionally, ED had been a federal agency largely dedicated to ensuring administrative compliance with federal statutes. But under President Obama, the ED’s Office for Civil Rights utilized “Dear Colleague” letters to announce and then enforce an aggressive cultural agenda.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos makes remarks during a major policy address on Title IX enforcement, which in college covers sexual harassment, rape and assault, at George Mason University, in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

Most notably, a “Dear Colleague” letter on Title IX coerced colleges to change their standard for investigating and addressing allegations of sexual assault on campus, in an effort to fight what was popularly framed as “rape culture.” And a “Dear Colleague” letter on Title VI coerced K–12 schools to adopt more lenient discipline policies, in an effort to fight what was popularly framed as “institutional racism” that created a “school to prison pipeline.”

Once these frameworks were adopted by a culturally aligned media, a Republican secretary of education—no matter what their media skills—was basically destined to lose the use of what is traditionally the secretary’s greatest asset: the bully pulpit. Any principled and effective secretary would be compelled to undo these federal overreaches, and face inevitable accusations of running cover for rape culture or institutional racism.

It is to DeVos’s substantial credit that she went through and did so when, according to her top staff, neither of these items were core priorities for the Trump administration writ large. Yet, as I watched her tackle these issues, I frequently found myself asking: Why isn’t she doing more, faster?

To try to answer this question, add nuance to the record for future historians, and inform the next conservative secretary of education and his/her staff, I interviewed five key DeVos staffers to understand the lessons that could be learned from her efforts to roll back this federal overreach. Staff were proud of her actions on Title IX and Title VI, but also largely agreed that each took longer to address than ideal, and that the lengthy processes cut into the pursuit of other priorities. I’ve written case studies of each in a recently released report: “The Dilemmas of Education Deregulation: Lessons from Secretary DeVos’s Tenure.” Two key lessons stuck out.

The first: Despite five years of criticism from conservative pundits and public policy intellectuals, no one had actually developed a robust alternative vision for what a more principled Title IX regulation would look like. On the one hand, the deliberative process produced a substantive and thoughtful regulation that DeVos staff feel confident will largely survive the Biden administration’s forthcoming attempt to re-regulate. On the other hand, if more intellectual groundwork had been laid by the conservative public policy community, they could have saved substantial time.

The second: The timetable for the Title IX regulation suffered because the DeVos political appointees felt that they could not rely on their civil servants to do their jobs with fidelity. After experiencing a series of leaks, and experiencing a general sense of discontent, DeVos’s political appointees were concerned about placing full trust in civil servants to review the unprecedented 120,000 public comments to the rule. If all comments were not dealt with substantively, the whole regulation could become vulnerable to being overturned in court. Political appointees developed a system to do or monitor responses to all regulations, and in retrospect one key appointee estimated that five months could have been saved if they could have trusted the civil servants. But time could also have been saved if DeVos had more political appointees at her disposal. In an earlier AEI report, Jim Blew, DeVos’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy analysis, noted that the Trump administration prioritized a lean staffing model. When it came to the regulatory process, this decision came at a substantial operational cost.

The next conservative secretary of education will face the same set of challenges that DeVos was the first to face. He or she will be forced to revisit and reregulate highly contentious social and cultural issues, in the face of a largely hostile media. If a conservative secretary of education wishes to have the time and bandwidth to pursue a positive governing agenda, it will be imperative to undo the Biden administration’s actions with maximum alacrity. These two lessons, as well as others I detail in my report, should help the next conservative secretary govern efficiently and effectively.

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Source: aei.org

Learning from DeVos’s Deregulatory Dilemmas