Federal Explainer

Betsy DeVos, Eleventh U.S. Education Secretary: Background and Achievements

By Education Week Library Staff — August 18, 2017 | Updated: February 12, 2021 6 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, waits on stage to be introduced before addressing staff at the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 8, 2017.

Biographical Information: Devos was born Jan. 8, 1958, in Grand Rapids, Mich. She graduated from Holland Christian High School in Holland, Mich., and received her bachelor’s degree from Calvin College in Grand Rapids. Before becoming secretary, DeVos was a Michigan philanthropist focusing on school choice and a GOP political donor. She successfully pushed for the passage of the Wolverine State’s charter school law in 1993 and has voiced her commitment to improving U.S. education through increased school choice. DeVos faced stiff opposition after her nomination by President Donald Trump and was confirmed by a 51-50 vote in the U.S. Senate on Feb. 7, 2017, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking the tie. Early on in her tenure, DeVos moved to rescind or revise guidance issued under President Barack Obama’s administration in areas including transgender students, discipline policies and their effect on students of color, and Title IX as it affects sexual assault and harassment. In the aftermath of the fatal school shootings in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, DeVos chaired the Federal School Safety Commission tasked with coming up with recommendations on how to protect students and staff from mass shootings and other violence. In the policy arena, she made school choice her signature K-12 priority, including support for a proposed $5 billion in federal tax credits to fund private school scholarships.

Served Under: President Donald J. Trump

Dates of Tenure: 2017-2021

Fun Fact: DeVos’ mother was a public school teacher for a few years.

Major Initiatives and Highlights of Tenure:
• DeVos has continued to push her agenda for school choice during her tenure as secretary.
• Early on in her term, DeVos got pushback for her team’s approach to implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which some critics saw as meddling in states’ newfound autonomy under ESSA.
• In response to pair of executive orders from President Donald Trump, the Education Department under DeVos began taking aim at red-tape and regulations.

Archives of Note:

Who is Betsy DeVos? (Facebook Live)
Politics reporter Andrew Ujifusa and editor Mark Bomster produced this Facebook Live video hours after the announcement. They talk about her record on education and what to expect from her as the nation’s top education official. (Nov. 23, 2016)

Senate Confirms Betsy DeVos as Ed. Secretary, Amid Unprecedented Pushback
Billionaire school choice advocate Betsy DeVos squeaked across the finish line to win Senate confirmation as President Donald Trump’s secretary of education, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking the tie. (Feb. 7, 2017)

Reactions to Betsy DeVos’ Confirmation as Ed. Secretary Range From Joy to Anger
School choice supporters are really happy. Civil rights organizations and teachers’ unions not so much. Check out what organizations across the political spectrum said after DeVos’ confirmation. (Feb. 7, 2017)

Trump Administration Rescinds Transgender Guidance
The U.S. departments of Justice and Education rescinded Obama-era guidance on the rights of transgender students, lifting requirements that schools allow students to use the restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. (Feb. 22, 2017)

Betsy DeVos to School Leaders: ‘I Support Great Public Schools’ (Video)
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos addressed urban school leaders at the Council of the Great City Schools’ annual legislative and policy conference in Washington. (Mar. 12, 2017)

Trump Ed. Dept. Has Yet to Hit the Accelerator
Nearly two months into the new administration and with ESSA deadlines looming, the agency has yet to fill key positions and faces steep cuts in its proposed budget. (Mar. 17, 2017)

DeVos’ Challenge: Tuning Her Message as New Education Secretary
After a rough start on the communications front, Betsy DeVos faces a steep climb to get her points across to the public while settling into her policy role. (Mar. 21, 2017)

Rifts Remain as Betsy DeVos, Randi Weingarten Tour Ohio District
The education secretary and the American Federation of Teachers president agree the Van Wert district is great, but don’t see eye-to-eye on vouchers, the budget, and more. (Apr. 20, 2017)

Q&A: One-on-One with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is not giving up on a school choice initiative, she said in a wide-ranging Education Week interview. (Sept 17, 2017)

Betsy DeVos: A One-Year Progress Report
The U.S. secretary of education faced a steep learning curve when she took office last year. See how her tenure is shaping up in key issue areas. (Feb. 8, 2018)

Betsy DeVos Still Challenged in Delivering Policy Message
The past two weeks show the education secretary is still a prime target of vitriol from her critics and sometimes her own worst enemy in making her case in the public arena. (Mar. 20, 2018)

Betsy DeVos an ‘Attractive Boogeyman’ for Political Campaigns
Candidates seek to use the education secretary and the Trump administration’s education policies as ammunition against challengers in this year’s midterm elections. (Sept. 27, 2018)

DeVos Rewrites Title IX Guidance on Sexual Assault and Harassment
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ office for civil rights is reversing itself on several key changes to how it investigates civil rights claims that had infuriated the civil rights community. (Nov. 27, 2018)

Betsy DeVos Revokes Obama Discipline Guidance Designed to Protect Students of Color
The 2014 guidance aimed at addressing disparities in school discipline involving black and Latino students had been in the Trump administration’s cross hairs for some time. (Dec. 21, 2018)

The Federal School Safety Commission in Six Key Takeaways
States and school districts would bear the weight of implementing most of the recommendations on how to safeguard students and school staff from mass shootings and other violence. (Jan. 15, 2019)

DeVos Pushes Federal Tax Credit to Boost School Choice
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is throwing her weight behind new legislation to establish a new federal tax credit to expand choice, a senior department official said. (Mar. 5, 2019)

DeVos Mends Fences With State Chiefs, Faces Critics in Congress
After weathering a political storm over the Trump administration’s proposed budget at the end of March, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos continued her run of public appearances into April, and got widely varied reactions from state education leaders and from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. (Apr. 16, 2019)

Betsy DeVos Tests a Rhetorical Twist on ‘School Choice’
The education secretary has been pushing the theme of “educational freedom,” a rebranding that suggests options like mixing and matching components to build an educational experience from scratch. (Oct. 1, 2019)

Pandemic a High-Stakes Test for Betsy DeVos’ Leadership
The coronavirus-driven disruption of the nation’s schools demands both practical and symbolic responses from an education secretary who has endured intense scrutiny and controversy from her first days in office. (Apr. 21, 2020)

How Betsy DeVos Bent the Nation’s Education Debate in Four Tense Years

President Donald Trump’s education secretary decried big government in schools, but wound up keeping her agency at center stage. (Dec. 14, 2020)

Betsy DeVos Resigns a Day After Pro-Trump Mob Storms U.S. Capitol

One of the president’s longest-serving cabinet members, DeVos had previously denounced the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington. (Jan. 7, 2021)

Commentary by Betsy DeVos

Tolerating Low Expectations for Children With Disabilities Must End
When it comes to educating students with special needs, “the minimum” is not an option, writes U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. (Dec. 8, 2017)

Betsy DeVos: How We Can Catch Up to Other Countries in Education
Following a trip to Europe, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos reflects on how we should restructure education at home. (June 28, 2018)

Additional Resources
Department of Education A short biography from the Department of Education

How to Cite This Article
Education Week Library Staff. (2017, August 18). Betsy DeVos, Eleventh U.S. Education Secretary: Biography and Achievements. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/betsey-devos-u-s-education-secretary-background-and-acheivements/2017/08

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