NASHVILLE — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos often rattles off the list of detractors standing in the way of expanding school choices for the nation’s children: the unions, the Democrats, the protesters and the bureaucrats.
But her allies and observers in the movement to overhaul education say it is time to add another to the list: her boss.
Ms. DeVos received a warm welcome here on Thursday at the 10th annual convening of center-right education reformers hosted by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which was founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida. But despite two standing ovations for Ms. DeVos’s impassioned calls to abandon systems that she said kept students trapped in unfit or misfit schools, it was not lost on audience members that their highest-profile surrogate had returned to her constituency empty-handed. Her promised actions have gone nowhere.
The culprit, they said, is the inflammatory president Ms. DeVos works for, who paralyzed efforts at cooperation and whose language and policies are seen as antagonistic toward low-income minority communities — the very families the secretary has spent 30 years championing.
“Betsy absolutely cares about those families,” said Howard Fuller, a professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee who helped found the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a group that supports school choice. “But her boss doesn’t, and she’s not a free agent.”
Funding requests for private school vouchers and charter schools that Ms. DeVos said would jump-start “the most ambitious expansion of education choice in our nation’s history” have largely been ignored by Congress. A tax-credit scholarship program, like the one Mr. Bush expanded in Florida, was supposed to go national — but has not taken flight.
The one proposal that has made some progress, an expansion of tax-favored 529 savings plans in the Republican tax overhaul to allow families to put away savings for private school tuition, has divided conservatives, some of whom say the expansion will not reach the low-income families that the school choice movement was created for. The beneficiaries would be families with money to sock away at the end of the month.
“The best and worst thing she’s done has electrified the conversation, and the fact that she had everybody coming for her from Day 1 shows what’s at stake,” said Derrell Bradford, executive vice president of the advocacy group 50CAN, or the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now. “But not as much has gotten done as we would like, and certainly what we wanted to get accomplished legislatively and thought would happen right away is not happening.”
Among choice advocates, Ms. DeVos still appeared to have broad support, and some of her allies blamed deep, divisive partisanship for her shortcomings.
“I don’t think people are giving her a real chance inside or outside the department,” said Robert Enlow, the president of the advocacy group EdChoice. “Ideology and partisanship has really gotten in the way.”
But most echoed Jack McCarthy, who runs an AppleTree early learning center and charter school in Washington.
He said Ms. DeVos’s principles were not unlike others that he had heard from former secretaries of education, including her immediate predecessors, Arne Duncan and John B. King Jr., who supported charter schools. But their boss, Barack Obama, was not the polarizing figure Mr. Trump is in the education community.
“The difference is the president,” Mr. McCarthy said. “She’s facing the general backlash to whoever is in a leadership position in that administration. And that’s a shame.”
Ms. DeVos, who sat on the board of Mr. Bush’s foundation and contributed to his failed 2016 presidential campaign, used her first address to the group as secretary to assure her audience that she had not been deterred.
“Allow me to borrow a line from the great American author Mark Twain: The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” she said, calling out “unions, union bosses, the defenders of the status quo, the education-expert bloggers and muckrakers, and many of our friends on the Democratic side of the aisle in Congress.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “In fact, I’m just getting started.”
Mr. Bush called her the “epitome of a principled reformer who puts kids first.”
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In an interview, Mr. Bush — who during the campaign called Mr. Trump “a chaos candidate” who would become “a chaos president” — acknowledged that Ms. DeVos had limited power and was operating in a “hyperpartisan environment.” He said he expected that she would leave her mark in some legislative effort.
“That hasn’t happened yet, but not much has happened,” Mr. Bush said. “I don’t blame her for that. This has been a period of adjustment, and I think she’s done a great job in changing who’s important.”
Mr. Bush said that Ms. DeVos’s real battle was not in Washington and that she had focused her attention in the right places: in the states, building coalitions to garner support for school choice policies that will ultimately be up to states to put in place.
Still, in her remarks to the crowd of nearly 1,000, Ms. DeVos signaled her impatience.
“We are at a time for choosing,” Ms. DeVos said. “We can choose to turn away, to offer platitudes or promises of action next year. Or we can say: no more. No more empty rhetoric, no more folding to political pressure, no more accepting by inaction this fundamental injustice that stains the future of the greatest republic in the history of the world. No more.”
But education policy experts say they see little Ms. DeVos can accomplish. The administration’s deregulatory push and support of the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal law that pushes most decision-making to states, leave her department weakened.
“She wasn’t set up to have power. She was set up to reverse everything,” said Chris Stewart, the chief executive of Wayfinder Foundation and a longtime education activist who moderated a panel of parents at the convention. “She has a bully pulpit, but you can’t get much done talking.”
Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said Ms. DeVos’s strong messaging could sometimes be off-putting, especially at a time when personal attacks are a common retort of the administration.
“I see a lot of coming out swinging at the teachers union, but it turns off people like me to not hear her talk about the limitations to choice,” Ms. Lake said. “If the plan is to just rally the base and asserting that choice is the answer, they’re not going to move things.”
Ms. DeVos’s obligation to carry out the administration’s deregulation agenda has been among the biggest challenges for the choice movement, many here said.
She has repealed guidance issued to states by the Obama administration on matters of civil rights that has been criticized by conservatives as federal overreach. She also delayed carrying out regulations designed to protect student borrowers, especially low-income students, that critics say are too broad and punitive.
“A lot of the regulatory changes that are happening in the office don’t seem to be coming from the person that I did state advocacy with like five or six years ago,” Mr. Bradford said. “The president’s administration’s a complicated one that has lots of people doing things they wouldn’t naturally do.”
And across the country, advocates are having a hard time reconciling Ms. DeVos’s philosophical and political affiliations.
“The fact that she’s in the Trump administration has not helped the parent choice,” said Mr. Fuller, the Marquette professor. “People who are on the ground, one of the things we now have to fight is guilt by association with Donald Trump.”
At a Murfreesboro, Tenn., high school the day before her keynote address, Ms. DeVos offered a rare admonition from a cabinet member on Mr. Trump’s language. According to The Tennessean, Ms. DeVos was asked whether the president was a good role model for children after he mocked Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” while honoring Navajo veterans. “I think the president continues to lead in an important direction in our country,” Ms. DeVos said. “And I think that we can all do well to reflect on the things we say before we say them.”