What to make of the tenure of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos depends, like beauty itself, on the eye of the beholder.
To the president who asked her to run the Department of Education, she was a loyal lieutenant who argued for her department’s irrelevance in a nation where control of schools is a local affair — that is, until she argued the opposite, at the president’s urging, and threatened schools with a loss of federal funding if they refused to reopen mid-pandemic.
To Christian conservatives, she was a hero who once proclaimed, “I fight against anyone who would have government be the parent to everyone.” DeVos used her bully pulpit to champion religious education, push for school choice and help private schools in financial turmoil.
To her critics, including the nation’s teachers unions, she was a stone-cold villain who famously suggested guns belong in some schools (to fend off bears), who needed the vice president’s vote to survive confirmation and who spent four years disparaging American public education.
Whatever view you take of DeVos, here’s a look back at the facts of her achievements and how likely they are to survive the next secretary.
Scuttling Obama-era guidance
One of the easiest ways an administration can undo the work of its political predecessor is to rollback what is called “guidance,” and DeVos wasted little time helping to reverse Obama-era guidance protecting transgender students.
In May 2016, the Obama Justice and Education departments sent a letter to school districts, advising them that students should be allowed to use facilities, including bathrooms, that are consistent with their gender identity. But in February 2017, DeVos helped rescind that guidance. Doing so sent a message to school leaders that her department would be enforcing a much narrower view of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education.
Student advocates and civil rights groups excoriated DeVos for the move. Looking back, Liz King of the liberal-leaning Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights describes the rollback as “heartless, cruel, reckless and irresponsible.”
In late 2018, DeVos made a similar move, dropping guidance that was meant to protect students of color from what the Obama administration called “discriminatory discipline.” The 2014 guidance had encouraged schools to use alternatives to suspension and expulsion and came with a threat: If a school district’s discipline patterns revealed significant racial disparities, it could face a federal civil rights investigation.
To justify rescinding the discipline guidance, DeVos’ department used an argument she would often repeat: that states and local districts should make education policy, not the U.S. government. Or, as she said in October 2019, “government has never made anything better or cheaper, more effective or more efficient. And nowhere is that more true than in education.”
Even when it came to budgeting for her agency, DeVos was ideologically consistent. She argued for less money from Congress, massive cuts in federal education spending and consolidating the programs that would remain (requests lawmakers repeatedly rebuffed).
The secretary talked often about what she perceived as the failures of America’s public education system and, instead, touted controversial and unproven alternatives, such as distributing school funds to families, to spend where they like. “Instead of holding fast to what we know does not work,” DeVos told lawmakers earlier this year, “let me suggest we find the courage to do something bold and begin a new era of student growth and achievement.”
While this kind of bold talk proved popular with many of the president’s supporters, her early moves made for a quicksand legacy — because just as DeVos could easily abandon guidance from a previous administration, so too can the next education secretary undo her work here.
“I think, within a year, we’re going to look back, and there’s not going to be much of a mark,” says Michael Petrilli, head of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank.
And in Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike never shared DeVos’ vision for a diminished department, ignoring those stripped-down budget proposals, year after year.
New sexual assault regulations
DeVos made a more lasting impact on how schools must respond to incidents of sexual assault and harassment by writing new regulations around Title IX “aimed at beefing up protections for accused college students,” as NPR’s Tovia Smith wrote earlier this year.
These new regulations allow the representative of a student accused of sexual assault to cross-examine his accuser in real time, raising concerns from survivor advocates that victims would be more reluctant to come forward. The department also limited the definition of sexual harassment to behavior that is “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive.”
“It communicated to survivors that they should not expect to be believed,” King says.
Unlike guidance changes, the rigorous process of writing new rules, as well as opening them to public comment, would make it difficult for a Biden administration to scrap them quickly.
“DeVos went through the full rule-making process. They spent a couple of years. They dotted all the i’s, crossed all the t’s,” says Rick Hess, who directs education policy at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “They came up with a Title IX playbook, which strikes me as both fair-minded and reasonable,” and for that, Hess argues, “[DeVos] deserves credit that nobody’s likely to give her.”
When the Obama administration cracked down on Corinthian Colleges and other predatory, for-profit schools that defrauded students, it also rewrote an old rule, known as Borrower Defense to Repayment, to help these student borrowers shed their unfair debts and start over.
Under DeVos, though, the Education Department did the administrative equivalent of throwing sand in the gears of Borrower Defense. It stopped reviewing cases for months, allowing the complaints of hundreds of thousands of students to pile up, then began the arduous process of rewriting the rule yet again. At the same time, the department refused to release legal reviews written by the Obama administration that justified sweeping debt forgiveness.
“While students should have protections from predatory practices, schools and taxpayers should also be treated fairly,” DeVos said in a 2017 speech. “Under the previous rules, all one had to do was raise his or her hands to be entitled to so-called free money.”
Under DeVos, the latest rewrite of Borrower Defense requires borrowers to meet a much higher standard before they can have their loans erased. Most notably, they not only have to prove they were misled by a school but also provide evidence of the school’s intent to mislead them. In fact, this new rule was considered so extreme that a bipartisan Congress voted to block it, forcing President Trump to use a rare veto.
“The Department of Education under Secretary DeVos has gone above and beyond to deny relief to borrowers cheated by for-profit colleges,” says Toby Merrill, director of the Project on Predatory Student Lending and an attorney who continues to fight DeVos’ moves in court. “Instead of getting the fresh start they were entitled to, former Corinthian students became political footballs in this administration, as did Borrower Defense rights as a whole.”
Merrill says the DeVos rule will be difficult for a Biden administration to scrap without again going through an arduous rule-making process. That said, the rule is currently at the center of a federal lawsuit in the Southern District of New York, where a judge could order a return to the Obama-era rule.
On no other issue has DeVos been more consistent, or more consistently outspoken, than on her desire to expand school choice via charter schools and private school vouchers. In a statement to NPR, DeVos’ press secretary, Angela Morabito, says that “school choice is on the march across the country, and Secretary DeVos will be remembered for leading the charge for every student’s right to seek out their best educational fit.”
Lead the charge, she did. But for all her efforts, DeVos has little to show for it. The department’s 2018 budget proposal, for example, would have set aside more than $400 million to expand charter schools and private school vouchers, but Congress nixed the idea. School choice advocates believed Trump’s overhaul of the tax code would be the perfect opportunity to implement an ambitious voucher program, but that too never materialized.
When Congress agreed to send K-12 schools more than $13 billion to cover costs related to COVID-19, DeVos angered even some Republicans by insisting that public schools should have to use more of that money to pay for services, such as tutoring and transportation, for private school students. Congress had agreed that services should be based on a private school’s share of low-income students; DeVos argued they should be based on schools’ overall share of students.
This fight captures DeVos’ determination to use federal power to legitimize and nurture alternatives to public education, but, as was often the case, her efforts failed. In September, a federal judge determined that the department had not only “acted beyond its authority” but misinterpreted the will of Congress, and DeVos later dropped the fight.
When asked to name DeVos’ lasting achievements, Morabito tops the list with Education Freedom Scholarships, calling the proposed voucher program “the most transformative K-12 policy in our nation’s history.” It would have provided up to $5 billion a year for children to attend the school of their choice, including nonpublic and religious schools. While the bill has more than 120 co-sponsors in Congress, it doesn’t have the kind of broad support it needs to pass. And so this “most transformative K-12 policy in our nation’s history” remains an airplane without wings.
In fact, Petrilli says, DeVos has been something of a drag on the school choice movement. “Charter schools used to have strong bipartisan support,” Petrilli says, but DeVos and Trump have been such polarizing figures that many Democrats abandoned the cause. “Now, Joe Biden has come in with the most anti-charter school platform since charter schools were invented 25 years ago. And I think that some of that has to be laid at the feet of Betsy DeVos.”
It’s clear from the department’s own language, about school choice “on the march” and DeVos “leading the charge,” that this secretary tore into the debate looking for combat, not compromise. As a result: School choice may soon be in retreat.
In early 2018, teachers in West Virginia and Arizona did something rare for educators: They walked off the job to protest low pay and underfunded schools. These demonstrations caught on with teachers in other states, too, creating a national “Red for Ed” movement.
While DeVos had done little formal policymaking to earn the ire of teachers nationwide, her criticism of public schools and teachers unions, as well as her eagerness to boost charter, private and religious schools, made her an easy target and a powerful rallying cry for teachers who felt overworked and underappreciated.
Becky Pringle, the head of the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, or NEA, remembers attending protests where “at least 50% of the signs had Betsy DeVos’ name on them, demanding her removal.”
In the middle of this protest movement, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that limited unions’ ability to collect fees — a move that many believed would imperil unions financially. But the decision, coupled with DeVos’ knack for angering teachers, instead energized educators and their unions — an energy that Biden’s campaign harnessed.
At roughly the same time educators were taking to the streets, NPR reported that a grant program, meant to pay the college bills of new teachers who promise to work in high-need schools, was instead unfairly saddling those teachers with debts because of small paperwork mistakes. The TEACH Grant program had become a trap.
But in one of the more surprising moves of DeVos’ tenure, the Education Department sided with teachers and not only worked to improve the program, but officially apologized for its failings (even though they were not the fault of the Trump administration) and created a path to make things right, ultimately helping more than 6,500 teachers shed their debts.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most disruptive events in the history of U.S. education. Even now, many students haven’t seen the inside of a school building since March. Districts far and wide have been hit with crushing new costs at the same time the pandemic has hammered state education budgets. Yet the nation’s education secretary played a largely passive role in the early months of the pandemic.
DeVos sidestepped calls from states and school leaders to provide science-driven guidance, alongside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to help determine safety thresholds for closing and reopening schools. She also parried calls to track school-based infections. On the matter of helping schools weather the pandemic’s financial toll, DeVos has also been largely passive, with schools getting little beyond the aid Congress passed in March.
The secretary’s most forceful pandemic moment came in July when she stood alongside Trump in arguing that schools should reopen in the fall, regardless of their ability to meet CDC safety recommendations. It was a striking pivot for a secretary who had repeatedly cited local control of schools to argue against action at the federal level. At a roundtable with DeVos, Trump threatened that his administration would even “put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools,” including saying (erroneously) that he could cut off federal school funds.
Where does all of this leave DeVos’ legacy as education secretary?
Practically speaking, much of the work she did was in undoing, and can similarly be undone.
For the cause she most often championed, that of expanding families’ access to charter and private schools, she made little progress — and may have been counterproductive, scaring away sympathetic Democrats who didn’t dare align with one of their party’s favorite villains.
Perhaps her most remarkable achievement wasn’t in the realm of policy at all, but in the fact that she became a household name — as a Cabinet secretary — and brought a white-hot spotlight to the debate about how America should educate its children.
“I don’t think there is another secretary of education who is better known than her throughout our history,” the NEA’s Pringle says.