Local Educators: "Wait & See" On New U.S. Education Secretary

Feb 9, 2017

Betsy Devos at a confirmation hearing on January 17, 2017
Credit Screengrab from YouTube: Secretary of Education Nominee Betsy DeVos Opening Statement (C-SPAN)

Betsy DeVos’ confirmation as U.S. Education Secretary is drawing praise from supporters and derision from opponents. Meanwhile, a couple of local school superintendents are watching what could happen next.

Vice President Mike Pence broke the 50-50 deadlock in the Senate on Tuesday to confirm DeVos. Two Republicans voted with Democrats against confirmation. Florida’s U.S. Senators split along party lines. Republican Marco Rubio voted for DeVos, Democrat Bill Nelson voted against.

On Wednesday the new secretary addressed the troops at the Department of Education, trying to mend fences with educators, parents, and activists following a bruising confirmation battle.

“For many, the events of the last few weeks have likely raised more questions and spawned more confusion, than they have brought light and clarity,” said DeVos. “So for starters, please know I’m a ‘door-open’ type of person.”

Meantime, local school superintendents are taking a wait-and-see position.

“I don’t think it was surprise, that’s been telegraphed since President Trump became president,” said Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas. “Like the new administration, I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt; I’m going to give them a chance to work through the process and see what we can get done.”

Thomas says there’s one message that he heard consistently from the Trump Administration, and from DeVos, during her confirmation hearing.

“They’re wanting to push more control back to local school boards and superintendents; I’m very supportive of that,” Thomas said. “I think we’ve been over-regulated from both the federal government and state government.”

In Santa Rosa County, Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick echoes Thomas’ concerns about federal intervention at the local school level. Another concern to Wyrosdick is DeVos’ lack of public education experience.

“I’m not immune to the idea that someone from the outside can’t understand public education, but it would endear me to her a little bit more if I knew she had a good understanding of public education,” Wyrosdick said. “My challenge to her, if she were to call me today is: Come get to know public education before you make judgment about us.”

That lack of a public school background, says Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas, will be a challenge.

“Obviously, the more experience you have when you step into a new job, the better off you’ll be, both short- and long-term,” said Thomas. “My years of experience prior to becoming superintendent certainly paved the road for me stepping into this job. She’ll probably make more mistakes just because she doesn’t know how the system works. So she’ll have to learn that.”

Then there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room: funding. Wyrosdick says they want to see fair and equitable funding for those federal dollars that come to Florida’s 67 school districts.

“For us to be able to locally control them, and make decisions that best meet the needs of our students here,” Wyrosdick said.

Every single person coming through the doors of a public school is educated, says Wyrosdick, who adds that policy and polity should remain at the grassroots.