By Shaun Boyd
DENVER (CBS4)– The U.S. Senate is expected to vote next week on whether to confirm Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. The billionaire and school choice activist has divided the Senate and her confirmation could have big implications in Colorado.
At least two Republicans have said they would not vote to confirm President Donald Trump’s pick, which would mean there would be a 50-50 tie with Vice President Mike Pence as the tie-breaker.
While DeVos’ nomination has been one of the most contentious, the Secretary of Education is one of the least powerful cabinet positions. Still, her confirmation would have implications for Colorado.
“Certainly the Secretary has the power to try to push her priorities,” says former State Senator Mike Johnston.
The 2018 candidate for governor is recognized as one of the nation’s leading experts on education policy. He says one of the areas where DeVos would have greatest discretion is the enforcement of civil rights protections. She says it should be left to the states.
“The danger is states could choose not to provide certain services to kids with certain disabilities,” said Johnston. “They could make that choice to say, ‘No we don’t provide services for autism or we don’t provide services for severe needs students.’ I would hope they wouldn’t but those are very expensive requirements.”
Johnston says DeVos also has the power to overturn the previous secretary’s regulations, “One of those that’s very significant is protections for victims of sex assault on campuses – how colleges have to respond and what they have to do in those cases is driven by the Secretary. She could undo those. Also, all the protections around keeping students from being preyed on by for-profit colleges where kids come out with a huge amount of debt and no degree. Some real restrictions were put in place that she could undo.”
DeVos has been non-committal on whether she would keep those regulations.
Maybe most controversial is her support of school vouchers, which are unconstitutional in Colorado.
“And so she wouldn’t be able to direct those dollars into the state without some new federal legislation so then you would have a battle between the federal government and state constitution.”
But Johnston says in other states, DeVos could direct more dollars to discretionary spending on things like vouchers.
“I think the fear is will she redirect the focus away from serving the kids with the greatest needs and those districts have the least amount of resources towards other areas.”
DeVos is also a big supporter of charter schools, as is President Trump, who’s promised a $20 billion investment to help low-income children attend private and charter schools. Johnston says that’s almost half the entire education department budget.
“I just don’t know where you’d find that scale of money without vastly cutting into currently very thin school budgets.”
Most of Colorado’s education policy is set by the state legislature and 93 percent of the funding for public education comes from the state and local government.
But, Johnston says, the U.S. Education Secretary does have influence, “The federal government’s role has really been to be the policeman to protect every child to make sure that every kid, no matter what you’re in state, no matter what district you’re in, gets a fair shot and that means if you come in with a disability or you come in speaking a different language or you come in from a low income family. The Department of Education was created to protect those children’s needs and interests and there’s a lot you can do through inaction here by refusing to enforce, by refusing to invest, by refusing to support those populations, you could see real negative impacts.”