Delay, dismantle, resist: DeVos leaves a legacy like no other Education secretary

Like DeVos, Cardona pressed for schools to remain open for in-person lessons during the pandemic, but ultimately left the decision up to local decision-makers and issued statewide rules about masks and other precautions for schools.

DeVos has won favor on the right with swipes at teachers unions as anti-student and by speaking out against federal bureaucracy and overreach.

“Be the resistance,” DeVos told her agency’s career staff on how they should approach the incoming Biden administration, urging them to put students first as she said she always has, according to a recording of her remarks obtained by POLITICO. In a letter to Congress on Monday, DeVos noted her time in her post is finite and encouraged urged lawmakers to reject much of Biden’s education agenda in the coming years.

“Sadly, too many politicians heed the shrill voices of the education lobby and ignore the voices of children, parents, teachers and health experts who are begging to get our students back to learning,” she said in October at the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan. “As for me, I fight for America’s students. I fight for their parents. And I fight against anyone who would have government be the parent to everyone.”

Yet she applied less scrutiny to for-profit colleges than her predecessor and revamped rules for handling sexual misconduct on campus, and she departed from the Obama administration’s approach to civil rights protections for students.

And federal judges have repeatedly rebuked DeVos’ handling of a program providing debt relief to defrauded students — among her most politically contentious higher education moves over the past four years. Biden wants to cancel $10,000 of student loan debt and a department led by Cardona is likely to accelerate help for defrauded borrowers.

DeVos’ desire to expand access to programs that provide scholarships for private school tuition died in Congress. Instead, her tenure has been marked by deregulation, school choice advocacy and relentless criticism of traditional public schools, turning her into the ultimate bogeyman for Democrats, civil rights activists and teachers unions.

Under DeVos’ leadership, the Education Department revoked Obama-era guidance allowing transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms in alignment with their gender identity. The department has also exerted pressure against transgender athlete policies the Trump administration says violate federal sexual discrimination laws.

After the Parkland, Fla., school shootings in 2018 that killed 17 people, DeVos took charge of a federal school safety commission that hardly touched on the role of guns in deadly shootings. Instead, at the commission’s recommendation, DeVos scrapped civil rights guidance aimed at curbing increased expulsions and suspensions among minority students, saying the policy threatened “the safety of students and teachers.”

During the Hillsdale speech, she spoke out against her own department, saying the “building” focuses not on students but on “rules and regulations, staff and standards, spending and strings.” She said “the state replaces the family” when people in Washington think they can make decisions for parents.

Even on the issue of tracking coronavirus cases in K-12 schools, DeVos said in October that she was not sure the department had a role, drawing criticism from Democratic senators.

DeVos is “the most-sued secretary” in the Department’s 41-year history, according to an October analysis by the education-focused news organization The 74. The secretary and her department have been the target of more than 455 lawsuits in less than four years, compared with 356 lawsuits against the department during the Obama administration’s eight years, the analysis found.

Education Department spokesperson Angela Morabito, however, noted that DeVos’ Title IX sexual misconduct rule has withstood legal challenges. The rule codifies sexual harassment “as the sex-based discrimination that it is” and legally requires K-12 schools to respond when any employee has notice of sexual misconduct, she said.

President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to undo the rule on sexual misconduct, which has been criticized for its protections for the accused, but unraveling it could take years.

Pushing schools to reopen

DeVos was among a half-dozen of Trump’s original Cabinet members to serve throughout the president’s first term, in addition to Vice President Mike Pence.

The outgoing secretary joined Trump in issuing hollow threats to yank federal funding from schools that did not physically reopen during the pandemic, even though she has long been a proponent of virtual learning. “Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place?” she asked in 2018.

DeVos froze monthly payments on federal student loans, setting their interest rate to zero, and quickly made available $13 billion in emergency relief funding under the CARES Act for K-12 schools, Morabito said.

But federal judges blocked some of DeVos’ goals for coronavirus relief funding. Her department in August said it was considering making changes to a rule barring undocumented students, international students and immigrants who do not have green cards from emergency pandemic relief to help students cover expenses such as housing and food. Judges blocked enforcement of the rule in Massachusetts and for students at California community colleges.

The secretary also abandoned her effort to force public schools to share a greater portion of the relief funding with private school students after a federal judge struck down her plan as illegal.

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