Betsy DeVos confirmed as Education Secretary

On Tuesday, Feb.7, the U.S. Senate confirmed President Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as  secretary of the U.S. Department of Education with a 51-50 vote. The confirmation vote was historic because it was the first time a vice president has cast a tie-breaking vote on a cabinet nomination.1

What should states expect in education policy under Secretary DeVos and the Trump administration? 

The mission of the U.S. Department of Education is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access. The department has the third largest discretionary budget, behind the departments of Defense and Health and Human Services.2

Throughout DeVos’ confirmation process, her priorities and views were brought to the national stage, providing important insights for states regarding what to expect as the department transitions under her leadership. In confirmation hearings, she reiterated her commitment to federalism and states’ rights, which seems to be a cornerstone of the approach she will take as secretary.

DeVos is a Michigan activist who is best known for her outspoken support of school choice alternatives to traditional public schools, such as charter schools and vouchers. 

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are operated by nongovernmental boards or organizations, which can be nonprofit or for-profit. Currently, 43 states have charter schools in some form, including Michigan. Other states – such as Kentucky – may take up the issue during the 2017 legislative sessions.

School vouchers are issued by states as tuition scholarships for students to attend private schools. Vouchers are usually directed toward certain populations, such as low-income students or students with disabilities.3 Fourteen states and the District of Columbia currently use traditional school vouchers; DeVos’ home state of Michigan is not one of them.3

Because the policies governing school choice options are decided primarily at the state and local levels, there is a great deal of variation in how these options are administered across states. Support and opposition to the measures can be found across the political spectrum.

While the U.S. Department of Education plays a large role in the regulation and funding of education, most policies regarding elementary and secondary education programming are made at the state and local levels.2  About 8 percent of K-12 education funding comes from the federal government.2 This includes contributions from the Department of Education as well as the Department of Health and Human Services’ Head Start Program and the Department of Agriculture’s School Lunch Program.2 The remaining 92 percent of K-12 education spending comes from local and state revenues.2 In fiscal year 2015, elementary and secondary education accounted for 35.2 percent of state general fund spending4.

This state autonomy was reinforced by the 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, federal legislation that transferred many school accountability decisions back to the states.2 States are continuing to formulate and are scheduled to soon begin implementation of their ESSA state plans; the DeVos confirmation and the direction of the Trump administration could have some effect on that process. The department has delayed its technical assistance to states regarding ESSA plans, which could indicate that they are considering changing regulations put in place by the Obama administration.

The department also has higher education under its jurisdiction. DeVos expressed her interest in examining what can be done about the current student debt situation.5 She did not commit to enforcing the “gainful employment” rule, and when asked about a federal-state partnership to ensure tuition-free colleges and universities, she pointed out that “there is nothing in life that’s truly free.”5 Some states have already begun implementing tuition-free higher education policies at the community college level, such as the Tennessee Promise Program. These types of programs take a “last dollar” approach, in which the state fills in the tuition gap that remains after students receive federal and state grants and scholarships. 



  1. The New York Times, "Betsy DeVos Confirmed as Education Secretary; Pence Breaks Tie," February 7, 2017. Web.
  2. US Department of Education. “The Federal Role in Education. Accessed February 8, 2017. Web.
  3. National Conference of State Legislatures. “Interactive Guide to School Choice – Vouchers.” Accessed February 8, 2017. Web.
  4. National Association of State Budget Officers. “State Expenditure Report: Examining Fiscal 2014-2016 State Spending.” 2016. Accessed February 8, 2017. Web.
  5. The Washington Post, “What We Learning about Betsy DeVos’s Higher Education Positions…Not Much,” January 18, 2017. Web.