Policy & Politics

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

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 14, 2020 12 min read
Image of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visits a classroom at the Edward Hynes Charter School in New Orleans, Friday, Oct. 5, 2018.

Shortly after President-elect Joe Biden’s victory—amid the continued disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic—U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos decided to send schools a message.

DeVos unveiled a website purporting to show that little coronavirus education relief had actually been spent, many months after it became available. She used the announcement to challenge states’ alacrity in responding to the virus and cast doubts on their calls for additional federal aid.

“I hope parents, teachers, and local leaders will use this information to advocate for an immediate safe return to learning for all students. Our children’s futures, and therefore our nation’s future, depend on it,” DeVos said in a statement.

But the targets of her rebuke swiftly countered that DeVos’ comments and the data were misleading, and that schools continued to need more resources from Washington even as they worked hard to reopen.

This episode captured many of the elements that have defined her tenure as education secretary: tension, if not plain distrust, between DeVos and other school leaders, divisions about how systems should be held accountable, and confrontational rhetoric from the secretary and her opponents amid a fraught atmosphere that lately has been accentuated by crisis.

Yet it was far from the most transfixing moment of DeVos’ last four years. To many, that superlative belongs to her 2017 confirmation hearing and its fallout, which set a tone that never really faded.

A major irony surrounds DeVos’ stormy term at the helm of the Education Department. She’s condemned and crusaded against the red tape and recalcitrant systems she believes hinder children’s success, in the name of what she came to call “education freedom.” Yet DeVos’ tenure has made her work, federal policy, and her agency—the nation’s single most powerful education bureaucracy—more prominent and controversial than ever for a broad swath of the public.

Her four years have contributed to the weakening, if not rupturing, of a bipartisan consensus around school choice, accountability, and labor policy that had become unsteady before she took office. Indeed, DeVos’ association with any issue, even relatively obscure ones like federal funding for the Special Olympics, could suddenly ignite a political bonfire like none of her predecessors could dream of, or dread. And this was despite her expressed displeasure at featuring in so many headlines.

Those glad to see DeVos’ time at the department end, like Arizona teacher Beth Lewis, say her leadership will be marked by what wasn’t done to address various inequities in schools that have become a grim hallmark of the pandemic’s effect on schools.

“We had four years when none of that was addressed, because the person in that highest office doesn’t support public education,” said Lewis, who is also the executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona, which supports public schools and more K-12 funding. “Even teachers who are not super-tuned into politics understand that. … I hope that people realize how fringe it is not to support public education.”

Yet those more sympathetic to DeVos say that her enemies used underhanded tactics to generate flawed outrage, even as she made good-faith efforts to improve schools and help students.

“I think there’s lots of misinformation about policy out there,” said Daniel Buck, a former public school and current private school teacher in Wisconsin who’s supported DeVos. “There are people out there who don’t know enough. They see, ‘Betsy DeVos likes charter schools,’ and their brain processes that as, ‘Betsy DeVos doesn’t support public schools.’”

One of the clearest manifestations of the rancor over DeVos was the chorus of “Bye Betsy” after President Donald Trump’s November defeat. The phrase rained down via social media, reflecting the hostility many educators expressed early as well as late in DeVos’ time at the department.

It was almost as if DeVos as well as Trump had been directly rejected by voters, a sentiment that Biden’s campaign team encouraged by targeting her on the presidential campaign trail. It was an unprecedented position for an education secretary.

Much the same could be said about DeVos’ last four years.

‘Teachers Were Livid’

The Education Department did not make DeVos available for an interview for this article.

In response to questions from Education Week about DeVos’ tenure, department spokeswoman Angela Morabito pointed to laws expanding school choice in disparate states like Illinois and West Virginia as proof of the secretary’s success; said that even amid this trend, teachers’ unions “turned the screws on elected Democrats” to resist DeVos; and highlighted the department’s speedy resolution of new and Obama-era civil rights cases, as well as her department’s 2019 agreement with Chicago Public Schools about its sexual-misconduct policies following a federal investigation.

“Education freedom has been on the march throughout Secretary DeVos’ tenure, and now, it has even more momentum,” Morabito said. “Support for education freedom cuts across political, racial, and economic lines—the American public is demanding options for their kids, and naysayers in Washington need to catch up.”

To some extent, DeVos intensified and did not create rifts in education politics.

For example, in the last few years, former education secretary Arne Duncan has frequently and publicly criticized DeVos. Yet Derek Black, a University of South Carolina law professor who himself has been a regular critic of DeVos, argued that even before Trump won election in 2016, “teachers were livid” after years of developments and rhetoric about schools that undercut their professionalism—and to which, in Black’s view, Duncan contributed in some ways, despite Duncan’s fundamentally different view of key issues.

“You had a poisoned well between teachers and federal and state administrators,” Black said. “She just comes in and just pours gasoline on a fire that was already started.”

DeVos did not always provoke uniformly partisan responses. Her approach to Title IX rules for sexual misconduct found support from less-than-natural sources. And in a different vein, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the retiring chairman of the Senate education committee who helped her confirmation over the finish line in 2017, scolded her department for how it initially handled states’ Every Student Succeeds Act plans later that year

But on policy issues, two prevailing themes in large part defined her tenure.

One was the rollback of Obama administration initiatives to increase school diversity, expand transgender students’ rights, and address racial disparities in school discipline. The Biden administration is expected to reinstate these and perhaps others from the Obama era, further cementing the see-saw pattern of the executive branch’s actions in education as presidents come and go.

The other is the failure—so far—of her favored initiatives to become law, even as they generated so much controversy. They include her push to use federal power if not dollars to dramatically expand educational choice; her unsuccessful calls for Congress to cut her agency’s budget, which lawmakers responded to by increasing it; and, more broadly, the Trump administration’s dead-on-arrival proposal to consolidate the Education Department with the Department of Labor. (Whether a new coronavirus relief bill includes the expansion of school choice she’s lobbied for remains to be seen.)

In a statement provided to Education Week, Alexander praised DeVos for her work on ESSA implementation (despite his early criticisms of her department on that front), as well as for her signature issue.

“She has been a champion of giving parents greater ability to send their child to the school of their choice,” Alexander said. “She understands that decisions about education are best made by those closest to the child.”

Yet at times, DeVos’ actions irked erstwhile allies in ways that her enemies might have glossed over. Early in the Trump administration, some supporters of school choice expressed discomfort with the idea of Washington exerting lots of power over school choice. And charter school supporters were dismayed at Trump’s early 2020 pitch to roll charter grants into a catch-all education block grant; whether DeVos herself eagerly backed this idea isn’t entirely clear.

The rhetoric DeVos and President Trump used might also help explain the reaction to her, pro and con.

“It’s either ‘freedom,’ or ‘government schools,’” Black said, describing his view of DeVos’ polarizing rhetoric. “It is now part of the discourse more than it ever was. I think that’s a corrosive thing. Instead of talking about how to make policy work, we’re having rhetorical arguments with each other. And that’s a sad state of affairs.”

Welcome Outside Washington

DeVos’ struggles to make herself a Washington power player did not prevent her from aggressively seeking out and using the bully pulpit to advance her cause outside of Washington. Despite her fame (or notoriety) as a national political figure, she found a relatively sympathetic audience in Republican governors and state lawmakers as she toured the country pushing for “education freedom.”

It was a role she was familiar with from her time as a billionaire donor to conservative causes and politicians, and as the one-time chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy group.

DeVos got people “talking more about students and families on both sides of the ledger and less about tinkering around the bureaucratic edges” said Luke Ragland, the president of the center-right Ready Education Network who previously wrote political briefs for President George W. Bush.

This message worked well, he said, with her emphasis on “getting the department back to basics” and “a more modest view of the department’s role.”

This has helped her, Ragland also said, when she’s promoted state and local action on school choice. For example, it’s hard to know if or how exactly DeVos herself helped Florida or Ohio enact major expansions to existing voucher programs within the past two years, for example, but the furor around DeVos ultimately didn’t stop them.

“I think school choice continues to sort of march forward across the country,” Ragland said. “It continued during the Trump administration, but it started before that.”

Trump and a Prevailing Disconnect

Another irony of DeVos’ time as education secretary involves arguably Trump’s most prominent and energetic venture into education politics aside from the pandemic.

During the heat of the 2020 presidential contest, Trump repeatedly said that students should be getting a “patriotic education” focused on the uplifting elements of American history, not interpretations that focus on race and the legacy of slavery like the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project.

In September, he announced a commission to promote this view, and slammed public schools’ “left-wing indoctrination” of children.

But the president didn’t make DeVos a consistent actor in this public-relations blitz. And DeVos’ contemporaneous September remarks did not neatly match Trump’s fiery broadside.

“Curriculum is best left to the states and to local education agencies, but we can talk about curriculum that actually honors and respects our history and embraces all of the parts of our history and continues to build on that,” she said.

This disconnect was not isolated. The previous year, DeVos publicly defended the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate her department’s funding for the Special Olympics, only for Trump to quickly reverse himself following a storm of protest.

‘People Are Paying More Attention’

With both DeVos and Trump leaving office, “I think it’ll be a little bit less noisy at the national level,” said Lewis, the Arizona teacher. “I hope so. But I also think people are paying more attention.” And Buck, the Wisconsin private school teacher, said he’s come to view DeVos as “neither the villain I think a lot of people think she is, nor is she a once-in-a-generation hero” regardless of the attention she attracted.

Meanwhile, the education community’s backlash to Trump highlights how non-educators (DeVos never worked as a teacher or in education administration before becoming secretary) have dominated education policymaking and in many ways failed to support a frail K-12 system, said Sonya Douglass Horsford, an associate professor of education leadership at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

“I don’t see her really having a lasting impact.” Horsford said of DeVos. “I just think that there are so many more really committed, experienced and talented educators that, under the next administration, will really be able to engage and help shape policy, and help build the system back in a way that reflects a more forward-looking direction for the country.”

The pandemic could be a crucial test of such propositions.

Unlike the episode involving patriotic education, DeVos took on a prominent role in pushing schools to resume in-person learning, and her rhetoric mirrored Trump’s. Her rallying cry for schools was, “We can do hard things.” Yet the way she handled relief funds and pushed schools to overcome barriers without special favors did not go over well in many parts of the education community. Horsford called DeVos’ response inadequate, yet also reckless. “We lay a lot of the blame obviously on Trump,” she said. “But what has been her plan?”

At the same time, some parents who previously didn’t much care for DeVos might now—ironically enough—find themselves more sympathetic to the Trump administration’s view, as they weary of remote learning. And concerns about the stress pandemic-driven remote learning on disadvantaged and vulnerable students and families have persisted across the education community.

“When you look back 50 years from now, historians will have an equal amount of dismay and disgust” about how schools have been handled during the pandemic Ragland said. “I think Betsy DeVos has clearly been on the right side of this debate.”

Pandemic or no pandemic, DeVos has never made her philosophy a secret.

“I will be a strong advocate for great public schools,” DeVos told senators during her 2017 confirmation hearing. “But, if a school is troubled, or unsafe, or not a good fit for a child—perhaps they have a special need that is going unmet—we should support a parent’s right to enroll their child in a high quality alternative.

As she prepares to depart office, COVID-19 has troubled education like nothing else. But measuring the success of DeVos’ tenure will in part depend on the extent to which families and educators sign up for the solutions she’s offered.

Key Flashpoints

Image of the swearing in of Education Secretary Betsy Devos on Feb. 7, 2017.

Confirmation Hearing

  • Betsy DeVos was prominent in political circles as a major conservative donor to causes and candidates, including senators who would ultimately vote on her nomination. Yet her Senate confirmation hearing as the education secretary nominee captured public attention like no previous nominee for the position.
  • Her responses to questions about guns in schools, special education, and testing caused a sensation and made her a figure of fun on late-night TV. The hearing led to an enormous amount of public pressure on senators not to confirm her.
  • Two Republicans, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, voted against DeVos, leading to a 50-50 result in the Senate. Vice President Mike Pence broke the tie in DeVos’ favor. But the confirmation process set the tone for the political atmosphere around DeVos for the next four years.

‘Education Freedom’

  • In her first year, the Trump administration proposed using $1 billion in new Title I funding available for open enrollment in public school. Congress ignored this idea. The 2017 tax law tweaked college savings accounts to allow parents to also use them for K-12 expenses, a notable but not a sweeping victory for DeVos’ agenda.
  • Early in 2019, DeVos settled on a proposal to create federally backed tax credits for states to use to support private school tuition costs and other education expenses. These “Education Freedom Scholarships” became the banner K-12 choice plan for the Trump administration; DeVos touted the fact that they did not rely on direct federal funding, and how they could be used for a wide variety of expenses, among other things.
  • Congress has not passed these Education Freedom Scholarships. DeVos has backed efforts on Capitol Hill to include some sort of tax-credit plan in COVID-19 relief legislation.

Pandemic Response

  • In the spring of 2020, DeVos let states and other jurisdictions cancel standardized tests required by the Every Student Succeeds Act due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In September, she said she did not plan on letting states cancel those exams again for the 2020-21 school year.
  • Using first guidance and then regulations, DeVos fought with state and local education officials over how much federal coronavirus relief had to be reserved to benefit private school students. Ultimately, federal courts sided with states and school districts over DeVos on the issue, and she backed down.
  • In general, DeVos has pushed public schools to prioritize in-person learning and said that schools that haven’t focused on reopening schools safely are not putting children’s interests first. However, she did use some coronavirus relief money to support states’ virtual learning efforts.

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