Michelle Rhee: Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos must reach out to teachers

By: - February 7, 2017 5:37 pm
Former D.C. teachers’ union head George Parker and school reformer Michelle Rhee take questions in Raleigh Tuesday.

Just months ago, Michelle Rhee, a polarizing school reformer in D.C., was on the shortlist of the top candidates to serve as President Donald Trump’s new education secretary. 

On Tuesday, hours after a nail-bitingly close Senate confirmation for the controversial new secretary, Rhee told a handful of North Carolina reporters Betsy DeVos will have her work cut out for her in her new role.

“Some people think this is going to be the greatest thing ever,” said Rhee. “Some people think this is the downfall of public education. I think, at the end of the day, she has been confirmed. I think that I’ve known Betsy for a long time. She’s very smart. She’s a reasonable person.

“I think it’s going to be important for her to do a lot of outreach to educators and others to hear what the concerns are so she can start to allay those.”

DeVos, a wealthy GOP donor and school choice proponent in Michigan, has been criticized, among other things, for gaining the job with no professional experience in public schools. She’s also been slammed by Democrats and public school backers for allegedly plagiarizing some answers on a Senate questionnaire and her sometimes strange responses to questioning during her confirmation hearing last month.

Rhee, no stranger to controversy, was in Raleigh Tuesday for a private evening meet with state lawmakers convened by BEST N.C., an education lobbyist group led by North Carolina business leaders. Reporters are being denied access to the event.

As Policy Watch reported last month, Rhee was joined by George Parker, the former D.C. teachers union chief who often clashed with Rhee when she led public schools in the district from 2007 through 2010.

Since then, Parker, who grew up in North Carolina, has joined forces with Rhee through her nonprofit StudentsFirst, an education reform organization that advocates for school choice and increased teacher accountability.

While Rhee and her supporters note rising test scores during her tenure, some have been bitingly critical of her for pushing through stringent teacher accountability measures that led the district to fire hundreds of teachers and administrators and close some schools. Meanwhile, others pointed out the so-called “achievement gaps” between socioeconomic groups persisted in D.C. under Rhee.

Despite her growing national fame during her time in D.C., her policies reportedly grew increasingly unpopular with district residents.

After many public school advocates complained about Rhee’s off-the-record presentation to legislators tonight, BEST N.C. scheduled a special gathering with media beforehand (Note: Look for a full run-down of the media address tomorrow morning here).

Rhee took a few moments Tuesday to address DeVos’ confirmation. She said educators will have a “responsibility” to keep tabs on DeVos as education secretary.

“I think, as educators, it’s our responsibility to do what we can to make sure that she’s successful and does have a focus on serving all kids,” added Rhee. “And that we have good accountability measures in place so that we can ensure the things she is pushing are successful. I think she will be receptive to that.”

Parker, meanwhile, was less guarded about DeVos Tuesday.

“Anyone who saw the hearings, we’re not impressed with the performance,” said Parker. “It is what it is. We have to find a way to work through it.”

New U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Parker, however, seemed to caution against dismissing the new education secretary’s views, pointing out how his perspective on public schools over the years has grown increasingly more friendly to the school choice movement.

“To see the quality of education that our children are receiving, I feel there’s an urgency to get it done now by any means necessary,” said Parker. “We are in a situation now that we cannot eliminate anything that can work. … We have to open our doors to other means, charters, to make sure that our children get educated.”

While DeVos will hold control over the nation’s vast public school infrastructure, some have suggested the new education secretary will have limited impact in North Carolina, given the considerably more state-friendly elements of the nation’s new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, approved in 2015.

That law, heeding complaints from both the right and the left, signaled a shift toward states taking greater control over teacher and school accountability.

BEST N.C. President & CEO Brenda Berg seemed to downplay DeVos’ confirmation Tuesday, arguing that the “vast majority” of education policy is coming from the state level.

“We will continue to do the work we’re doing,” said Berg. “We don’t anticipate any significant changes.”

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.