WASHINGTON — Betsy DeVos will soon step down from her perch as Education secretary, ending her four-year run as the most polarizing person to have led the department.
The Michigan billionaire, education philanthropist and staunch supporter of school choice will be remembered as a Cabinet secretary who successfully delayed and dismantled Obama-era rules at all levels of education. Her nomination to the Education Department’s top office in 2016 attracted more opposition than almost any other nominee and confrontations with public education advocates persisted throughout her term, especially during the coronavirus crisis, when she aggressively pushed for schools to reopen.
If confirmed, the next Education Secretary will be a departure from DeVos. Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona is a longtime educator who won unions’ support to be the nation’s next top education official, even though they have at times sparred with their state chief.
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.
A school choice star
Morabito highlighted DeVos’ work on elevating apprenticeships, dual enrollment programs and other “practical learning opportunities.” She published program-specific debt and earnings data in the College Scorecard and streamlined the Federal Student Aid process so that borrowers “will finally be treated like valued customers at a world-class financial institution.”
DeVos, a former Michigan Republican Party chair, is a star among fans of school choice and conservatives. Her travels leading up to the 2020 presidential election included the battleground states of Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Texas, Iowa and Florida as she promoted the reopening of schools during the pandemic.
“[Education Secretary] DeVos kept school choice in the lime light, and that shored up policymakers and parents to expand existing programs, to introduce new programs, which increased during her time,” Jeanne Allen, the founder and chief executive of the Center for Education Reform, wrote in an email. DeVos was also successful in “keeping Washington’s heavy hand out of people’s way,” she wrote.
Allen added, “It’s rare you find a Cabinet Secretary who is willing to go out on a limb time and time again without regard to approval from the ruling classes.”
The exiting secretary has repeatedly called for education funding to follow students and has blasted grim results on national K-12 assessments as confirmation that U.S. schools are falling short and failing kids, particularly the most disadvantaged.
Morabito said DeVos “changed the national conversation about what K-12 education should and can be.”
Her top K-12 reform proposal was aimed at expanding options for families. It would have created federal tax credits for donations to scholarship-granting organizations to pay for students to attend private schools or expand their public education options. It never advanced in Congress, even after Trump featured the program in his 2020 State of the Union Address. Trump had cited school choice as a top priority for his second term.
When the latest coronavirus relief package excluded school choice provisions she sought, President Donald Trump signed an eleventh-hour executive order in December allowing states to use funding from a federal anti-poverty program to provide vouchers to help “disadvantaged families” pay for private school tuition, homeschooling or other educational expenses during the pandemic.
“We want parents to have the freedom, the choices, and the funds to make the best decisions for their children,” she said at Hillsdale. “The ‘Washington knows best’ crowd really loses their minds over that.”
Biden has called for greater scrutiny of all charter schools — which are publicly funded and independently run — and eliminating federal spending on for-profit charter schools.
DeVos also used the Hillsdale speech to blast the “unholy mob” that she said thinks economies need redistributing, the Constitution needs rewriting and families need restructuring. Without naming Black Lives Matter, she referenced their statement about disrupting “Western-prescribed nuclear family structure,” likening it to Marxism. The statement now has been removed from their website, but Politifact noted that the group’s full statements call for supporting individuals beyond the nuclear family.
“Let’s begin by reasserting this fundamental truth: The family is the ‘first school,'” DeVos said. “If we recognize that, then we must also reorder everything about education around what the family wants and what the family needs.”
Remember the grizzly bears?
Polls have shown DeVos as one of the administration’s most unpopular Cabinet members. She is also the only Education secretary to have the protection of U.S. Marshals — a task that has cost taxpayers $24 million over the past four years — after encountering protesters while visiting a D.C. school. DeVos — who is married to Dick DeVos, the son of the co-founder of the Amway Corporation — flew on her private jet for official business and paid for her own travel expenses, as well as the travel costs of the federal marshals who accompany her, POLITICO reported when the arrangement began.
That DeVos would become such a well-known face of the administration was all the more remarkable considering she was barely known outside Michigan political circles and the school choice community at the time of her nomination. She rose in notoriety during her Senate confirmation hearing, where she seemed confused about special education policy and suggested guns were used in schools “to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Michael Stratford contributed to this report.