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Did Democrats Waste Time Fighting Betsy DeVos More Than Other Nominees?

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 23, 2017 5 min read
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Senate Democrats, teachers’ unions, and other opponents of Betsy DeVos spent a tremendous amount of time opposing her nomination for education secretary. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful. Should they have directed more or much of that energy elsewhere in seeking to defend their K-12 priorities?

We’ve written recently that DeVos doesn’t have a huge amount of power under the Every Student Succeeds Act, at least compared to past education secretaries. And education secretaries in general tend not to have the same sway as some of their peers in a president’s cabinet. Take Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who appears to have wielded some early influence in education policy under the Trump administration.

A New York Times report Wednesday stating that DeVos initially resisted the push by Sessions and others in the Trump administration to repeal the Obama-era guidance protecting transgender students’ rights under Title IX. Eventually, DeVos decided to go along with Sessions and support repealing the guidance instead of resigning, a choice the Times reported she faced. (Repealing that guidance required approval from both DeVos and Sessions.) White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, however, subsequently told reporters Wednesday that there were discussions in the administration about the timing and wording of the announcement, not divisions over whether to rescind the guidance.

Ultimately, the Trump administration rescinded that guidance late Wednesday.

DeVos did put out a statement when the administration rescinded the guidance saying that although the issue of transgender students’ rights was best left to states and local jurisdictions, “I have dedicated my career to advocating for and fighting on behalf of students, and as Secretary of Education, I consider protecting all students, including LGBTQ students, not only a key priority for the Department, but for every school in America.” (Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the Senate education committee’s top Democrat, initially praised DeVos’ resistance to resciding the guidance on Wednesday, but later the same day criticized her for caving to Sessions.)

Because of the Times report about Sessions winning out over DeVos, as well as other political dynamics, there’s been some criticism of the intense opposition DeVos got compared to someone like Sessions, given his polarizing record on issues such as immigration.

Other cabinet secretaries who also could have a notable impact on education issues at the federal level include Secretary of Health and Human Service Tom Price, and Ben Carson, the nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Although the Democrats failed to stop DeVos, two Republican senators ended up voting against her, whereas all Republicans voted in favor of Sessions. Sessions’ nomination did generate plenty of opposition, even if it wasn’t necessarily as sustained or as intense as the lobbying against DeVos. (One prominent example of pushback to Sessions was Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who took the unusual step of testifying in the confirmation hearing against a fellow senator.)

It remains to be seen whether the backlash to DeVos affects her time as secretary, and if the Democrats get long-term political benefits from their opposition to her.

No Choice?

One civil rights advocate we talked to who opposed both DeVos and Sessions said it was sometimes frustrating to see intense criticism of DeVos’ nomination that didn’t carry over into fighting Sessions. This advocate told us that many people who opposed DeVos may not realize that the Justice Department ultimately has the enforcement power over the civil rights issues the Education Department (and other cabinet agencies) regularly deal with, giving Sessions a fair bit of influence over K-12 policy.

At the same time, this advocate expressed no regrets about the energy expended to fight DeVos. And while the transgender rights issue was a prominent example of how Sessions could influence education issues, it’s not necessarily the start of any pattern in the Trump administration.

Democratic leadership may not have had complete control over how the DeVos nomination played out, said Maria Ferguson, the executive director of the Center on Education Policy, a public education advocacy group that studies federal K-12 issues.

“With Betsy DeVos, I’m not entirely sure when the Democrats had any choice when you saw the incredible public outpouring against her. I think they would have been criticized even more if they had not done anything,” Ferguson said, especially considering that criticism of DeVos was “coming from so many different people outside the traditional education space.”

By contrast, she said, Sessions not only had a relatively smooth confirmation hearing, but has had strong, longstanding relationships in Congress. These robust relationships extended to Democrats: Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., reportedly hugged Sessions after the Senate voted to confirm him, even though Carper voted against him, as did all Democratic senators except Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Other Democrats who voted against Sessions but who nevertheless congratulated him after being confirmed were Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

“I’m not sure there was the will there to push back against him in Congress,” Ferguson said, adding that, in a more general sense, education can be “easier for people to get their arms around” than issues at the Justice Department.

It’s true that in terms of pure political power and the secretary’s relatively limited authority under ESSA, Sessions may have been a better target for Democrats to try to take out than DeVos, said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University based in Madison, N.J., who studies education policy. But that doesn’t automatically translate into successful pressure on senators, he stressed, compared with the reaction to DeVos’ confirmation hearing and people’s direct connections to schools.

“That’s a hard argument to convey to the American public writ large and organize opposition around,” McGuinn said.

Vice President Mike Pence swears in Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington earlier this month, as DeVos’ husband, Dick DeVos, watches. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

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