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After 6 months on job, education chief still highly divisive

In this Aug. 9, 2017, photo, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is interviewed by The Associated Press in her office at the Education Department in Washington. It’s been six months since her bruising Senate confirmation battle, and DeVos remains highly divisive. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

In this Aug. 9, 2017, photo, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is interviewed by The Associated Press in her office at the Education Department in Washington. It’s been six months since her bruising Senate confirmation battle, and DeVos remains highly divisive. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON — Among the paintings and photographs that decorate Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' sunlit, spacious office is the framed roll call from her Senate confirmation. It's a stark reminder of the bruising process that spurred angry protests, some ridicule and required the vice-president's tie-breaking "yes" vote.

Six months on the job, DeVos is no less divisive.

Critics see her as hostile to public education and indifferent to civil rights, citing her impassioned push for school choice and her signing off on the repeal of some protections for LGBT students.

Conservatives wish she had been less polarizing and more effective in promoting her agenda, noting that the department's budget requests are stalled in Congress and no tangible school choice plan has emerged.

DeVos is undeterred.

"We have seen decades of top-down mandated approaches that protect a system at the expense of individual students," DeVos told The Associated Press. "I am for individual students. I want each of them to have an opportunity to go to a school that works for them."

In her first comprehensive sit-down interview with a national media outlet since taking office, DeVos touched on some of the most pressing issues in K-12 and higher education.

She said Washington has a role to "set a tone" and encourage states to adopt choice programs without enacting "a big new federal program that's going to require a lot of administration." At the same time, she confirmed that a federal tax-credit voucher program was under consideration as part of a tax overhaul. "It's certainly part of our discussion," DeVos said.

DeVos, 59, appeared confident, but reserved during the 30-minute interview last week in her office, where photographs of her children and grandchildren and drawings and letters from young students are prominent. Large windows overlook the Capitol. Across the street, visitors lined up outside the National Air and Space Museum, which DeVos toured this year with Ivanka Trump to promote science and engineering among girls.

DeVos defended her decision to rewrite Obama-era rules intended to protect students against being deceived by vocational nondegree programs, saying that "the last administration really stepped much more heavily into areas that it should not."

Liberals accuse DeVos of looking out for the interests of for-profit schools, and they point to Trump University, the president's for-profit school that was sued for fraud. Supporters say the Obama regulations unfairly targeted for-profits and failed to track students' long-term careers.

The decision by the departments of Education and Justice to roll back rules allowing transgender students to use school restrooms of their choice enraged civil rights advocates, who said already vulnerable children could face even more harassment and bullying. Conservatives saw DeVos fulfilling a promise to return control over education issues to states, cities, school districts and parents.

"We really believe that states are the best laboratories of democracy on many fronts," DeVos said.

On the issue of school choice, DeVos was resolute. Another major flashpoint: charter schools, which are publicly funded but usually independently operated, and voucher programs that help families cover tuition at private schools. They're often criticized for a lack of transparency, and studies about their effectiveness have produced mixed results. DeVos disagrees.

"I think the first line of accountability is frankly with the parents," she said. "When parents are choosing school they are proactively making that choice."

For DeVos, who spent more than two decades promoting charter schools in her home state of Michigan, the closure of some low-performing charters was evidence of accountability. "At the same time, there have been zero traditional public schools closed in Michigan for performance and I think that's a problem," she said.

DeVos got off to a rocky start in the Trump Cabinet.

She was satirized for some of her gaffes during the confirmation hearing, such as saying that guns are needed in schools to protect students from grizzly bears. Teacher unions accused her of seeking to privatize public education. Parents and teachers jammed Congress phone lines to oppose her nomination.

It took Vice-President Mike Pence's historic vote — the first by a vice-president to break a 50-50 tie on a Cabinet nomination — to secure her position after two Republican senators defected.

DeVos is still sometimes met with protesters at public events, and her security detail has been bolstered at an additional cost of $7.8 million.

But DeVos isn't retreating.

She actively advocates for school choicce, once comparing education to ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, and saying that parents, like riders, need options. Of the 17 K-12 schools that she has visited so far, only seven were traditional public schools. DeVos didn't attend public school herself or send her children to a public school.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a recent speech that DeVos was a "public school denier" and quipped that DeVos can start talking about school choice even in reply to a simple greeting.

Conservatives say she may have oversold.

"She has made things harder for herself by acting as the secretary for school choice instead of the secretary of education," said Mike Petrilli, president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute. "She has missed the opportunity to make it clear that she wants to see all schools succeed."

Moderates are upset.

"I have feared that in trying to rush in with a simplified notion of choice — that she will love charters to death," said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a pro-charter group. "At this point, six months in, I don't see any evidence that we are farther along on helping with achievement, equity, with moving the country forward."

Asked to name some of the strengths of public schools that she has observed in her job, DeVos said only that she is "a very strong supporter of public schools."

"But we also need to encourage schools, public schools that are doing a great job to not rest on their laurels but to continue to improve because unless you're constantly oriented around continuous improvement and excellence we know that there's going to be reversion to something less than that," she added.

DeVos' proposal of a $9 billion, or 13.5 per cent , cut to the education budget angered the left, but also drew criticism from top Republicans. The $20 billion school choice program that President Donald Trump promised during his campaign has so far failed to materialize. Last month, the House rejected his administration's plans for a $250 million private voucher program and a $1 billion in public school choice.

Petrilli said that was partly due to DeVos' divisive rhetoric and problems filling senior positions at the department, as well as controversies plaguing the White House. "Anyone in her position would be having a difficult time because of her boss," Petrilli said.

What grade should appear on DeVos' report card after her first six months in office?

"A very incomplete," said Patrick McGuinn, a professor of political science and education at Drew University.

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