In 2017, it took Vice President Mike Pence’s tiebreaking vote to make billionaire philanthropist and school-choice activist Betsy DeVos the country’s education secretary.
Days earlier, she had struggled to answer basic education policy questions during her confirmation hearing. Her confusion, the evocative details — in response to one question, she said schools may need guns to protect against grizzly bears — and a surge in protest and civic activism against President Trump turned DeVos into a household name.
She has held onto that symbolic power. To many educators, her name remains a shorthand for feelings of frustration and disrespect. Her face became a staple of Democrats’ political ads nationwide, even though education policy was rarely central to the races. And when it became clear that Joe Biden would win the presidential election, the responses from many teachers came quickly: bye, Betsy.
“We used that energy and that activism, [all] the additional people that joined us, to help us fight for four years,” the head of the nation’s largest teachers union, Becky Pringle, said in a recent interview.
That power to polarize may be the most lasting piece of DeVos’ legacy.
DeVos has made an impact at the helm of the education department. She axed Obama-era guidelines for schools that provided protections for transgender students, among other changes, arguing for a more limited role for the federal government; oversaw a sweeping re-write of the procedures for handling sexual harassment in K-12 schools; and limited the scope of civil rights investigations, the consequences of which might take years to fully see.
But DeVos did not succeed at encouraging substantial numbers of students to opt out of public schools with new private school voucher programs — her central policy goal.
She did not substantially shrink the federal education budget.
She did not end the Common Core standards, as she has sometimes claimed.
And she also didn’t succeed at pressuring schools to reopen their doors at the start of this school year, when concerns about the pandemic had prompted many districts to continue virtual learning.
What DeVos has done, though, is nudge education further into red camps and blue camps. She energized an army of teachers and empowered their unions. She made it more difficult for Democrats to back charter schools, helping unravel a school reform consensus that embraced school choice and testing.
That divergence is likely to shape the education conversation for years to come, and influence President-elect Biden’s choice for education secretary, too.
Many of DeVos’ notable moves involved undoing Obama-era policies
In her first year as education secretary, DeVos’ education department revoked guidance that spelled out how schools should protect transgender students, which included providing them access to facilities corresponding to their gender identity. DeVos reportedly opposed the change at first, but eventually went along with it, saying the issues were best left to states and local school districts.
Eliza Byard, the executive director of GLSEN, which advocates on behalf of LGBTQ students, said the effects were “chilling and immediate.” Several GLSEN chapters reported cases of transgender students losing access to bathrooms they’d been able to use before, Byard noted. Transgender students who filed civil rights complaints with the department after being denied bathroom access had their cases thrown out.
It was one of several times DeVos revoked guidance related to students’ civil rights, saying the federal government had overstepped.
In 2018, DeVos rolled back the Obama administration’s guidance around school discipline, as well as guidance for school districts that wanted to use race in admissions and enrollment decisions to integrate their schools. It’s unclear how many school districts changed their policies in response.
DeVos’ education department also quickly closed many of the civil rights investigations it inherited from the Obama administration, then limited the length and scope of the investigations it did conduct.
“Most of her action, and most of the action of her department, has been in trying to reduce the effect of the Department of Education,” said Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. But, he noted, “The legacy of an administration that’s largely devoted to undoing a legacy can be undone very quickly itself.”
President-elect Biden has pledged to reinstate all of that guidance and to reinvigorate the civil rights office. But at least one change DeVos made will stick, at least for a while: new rules that dictate how K-12 schools address allegations of sexual harassment and assault, which went into effect this summer and would require an extensive regulatory process to undo.
DeVos also blocked some efforts to desegregate schools, ending a program that would have given school districts $12 million for school integration efforts. Without the federal money, many districts abandoned their ideas.
And she took a hands-off approach to the Every Student Succeeds Act, the nation’s newly re-authorized K-12 education law, again drawing opposition from civil rights groups. DeVos’ office generally approved states’ plans for improving their lowest-performing schools with few major changes.
“Ultimately the secretary — and this was her approach to many things — felt if Congress left something flexible, she wanted to give states that flexibility,” said Jason Botel, a former department official involved in approving the plans.
DeVos failed to notch legislative wins, limiting her influence
But DeVos did not come to the role of education secretary hoping only to undo. The focus of her career in education has been creating alternatives to traditional public schools, particularly through vouchers that help low-income families pay for private school with public funds.
“I would hope I could convince you all of the merit of that in maybe some future legislation,” she told senators during her confirmation hearing.
DeVos has had virtually no success on this front since. She has toured the country promoting a bill that would use federal tax credits to help states offer private school tuition stipends, but it’s gone nowhere in Congress. Opposition has come from public school groups as well as from conservatives worried about additional federal involvement.
In a statement, a spokesperson for DeVos pointed to the introduction of the bill as her most significant achievement, calling the Education Freedom Scholarships proposal “the most transformative K-12 policy in our nation’s history.”
DeVos has also backed a federal bill, in the wake of COVID, that would send money to state programs that help families afford private school tuition. But Congress has failed to reach a deal on another stimulus package where such funding could be included.
Still, advocates for private schools say she has been an important ally and has drawn new attention to programs that help low-income students attend private school.
“She actually knows we’re here and pays attention to us,” said Sister Dale McDonald, who directs policy and research for the National Catholic Educational Association. “Not that we get what we want all the time, but they’re willing to listen to us and engage with us.”
DeVos also has failed in another legislative domain: cutting federal education spending. She has often argued that more funding doesn’t lead to better outcomes for students, and the Trump administration proposed cuts all four years. (In 2019, the unsuccessful cost-cutting effort famously ensnared the Special Olympics, though DeVos said she had fought privately to continue funding the program.)
But the Trump administration’s education budget proposals, like its school choice proposals, were repeatedly rejected by Congress.
The pandemic spotlighted DeVos’ inconsistent use of federal power
DeVos’ tenure saw one of the biggest upheavals of schooling in American history. The coronavirus pandemic forced schools to suddenly close their doors and figure out how to continue educating their students; months later, they had to figure out whether they could safely reopen buildings while dealing with spikes in cases. Millions of students are still learning from home, without the social, academic, and emotional benefits of in-person schooling.
DeVos’ response to the crisis has showcased her on-again, off-again relationship with federal power.
In the spring, DeVos declined to waive key parts of the nation’s special education law — using her authority to affirm that schools needed to meet students’ needs to the greatest extent possible, in a surprise to some civil rights advocates. She later did the same for English learners, though some critics said that guidance should have come sooner. She also waived the requirement that states give annual tests.
The secretary’s pandemic response, a spokesperson said, will be remembered as “quick and decisive.”
Most notably, she joined President Trump’s aggressive push to get schools to reopen their doors, making the case during a White House event, while visiting schools across the country, and on cable news.
Those comments were in tension with her view that education decisions should be left to local officials, and her years of advocating for nontraditional and virtual schooling.
Regardless, Trump and DeVos’ campaign was not very effective: many of the country’s schools started entirely remotely, and many students continue to learn online. But their use of the bully pulpit may have contributed to reopening decisions splitting along party lines and made already fraught decisions even more complicated.
“When you have the president, ill informed, saying you must open schools to get funding … it was an injection of partisan messaging that ratcheted up pressures at a local level,” said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of AASA, the national school superintendents association.
The pandemic also gave DeVos an opportunity to aid private schools, an agenda she frankly acknowledged at one point.
In her clearest effort to do so, her department interpreted the CARES Act in a way that would have effectively shifted hundreds of millions of dollars from public schools to private schools. Three federal judges ultimately ruled that her approach violated the clear dictates of the law, and DeVos eventually dropped the legal fight.
But while the pandemic showcased DeVos’ willingness to leverage federal authority — even if unsuccessfully — it also underscored areas where she’s been hesitant to take the lead.
Amid growing calls for systematic efforts to track school reopenings and the spread of COVID, DeVos has declined to get involved. “I’m not sure there’s a role at the department to collect and compile that research,” she said last month.
Some school officials have also pushed for more concrete, reliable guidance from the department. Over the summer, principals and superintendents said they had little to go on as they tried to make decisions about the safest ways to reopen, particularly once reports surfaced that Trump officials were attempting to influence the CDC’s recommendations for schools.
More broadly, DeVos largely sidestepped the role of a unifying leader during a crisis. Two former education secretaries, Arne Duncan and Margaret Spellings, teamed up this summer to fill what they said was a void in federal education leadership.
“People are starving for, hungry for, guidance, for support, for help, for expertise, especially [around] something that is a national event,” Spellings, who served under President George W. Bush, told Axios in June.
DeVos’ persona may have a longer-lasting impact than her policies
Though DeVos didn’t succeed in expanding private school vouchers or cutting funding for public schools, the controversy around her hasn’t abated.
Polls have found her among the best known but least popular of Trump’s cabinet members. Democrats running for president promised on the campaign trail to “fire” her, and several running for Congress attacked their opponents for supporting DeVos’ agenda. She also occasionally came up during local school board elections, particularly when charter schools were at issue.
She became a useful foil for teachers unions, who positioned themselves in opposition to DeVos and her policies. Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, says pushing back against DeVos, as well as a Supreme Court decision that limited unions’ abilities to collect dues, made the AFT better organized and more effective at reaching members.
“The fact that she fought against resources for schools, wanted to starve public schools, made people realize the importance of the Fund Our Future and the Red for Ed movements,” Weingarten said. “So yes, that will be part of her legacy, too, but I don’t take any glee in her contemptuousness unifying us more.”
DeVos seemed to welcome the opposition, regularly castigating school districts, teachers unions, and prior presidential administrations. She was even willing to pick a fight with the national charter-school lobby during an effort to cut funding to the federal Charter School Program.
For some charter advocates, her tenure has proved doubly frustrating: few policy wins but major political baggage. “The movement itself will be stigmatized for quite some time because of her,” said Steve Zimmerman, who runs a charter school in New York City and started a coalition of independent charter schools.
Already, before DeVos took over the education department, an era of widespread bipartisan agreement about the best way to fix schools — a combination of policies like standardized testing for accountability, charter schools, and the Common Core standards — was ending.
“I suspect that because of the politics around the Trump administration, and around her, that the case for school choice in the states as it moves forward in the next few years will have a more emphatically Republican-populist orientation than it’s had before,” said Eden of the Manhattan Institute.
Some lay the blame at the feet of President Trump and his sometimes racist rhetoric, which made it difficult for anyone associated with him to claim to champion students of color and placed Democrats supporting school choice in an uncomfortable position.
“The context in which the school choice conversation was brought up in his administration was one that was very fraught. It institigated some very strong knee-jerk reactions — understandably,” said Botel, the former education official, who endorsed Biden for president.
Still, Black and Hispanic Democrats remain relatively supportive of charters, and overall support for private school vouchers has increased in recent years. To DeVos, that’s evidence that she’s pushing for what families want, despite the resistance.
“There’s a mighty chorus, rising in volume and urgency, supporting parental ‘school choice,’” she said during a recent speech.
Regardless, a Biden administration is set to pivot fully from DeVos and also diverge from President Obama on key issues. While DeVos has emphasized alternatives to neighborhood public schools, Biden has committed to support them with more federal money. He’s also promised a different approach to helping schools navigate the pandemic: instead of simply pushing them to reopen, he’ll focus on providing needed resources and clearer guidance.
And Biden’s pledge to hire an education secretary who has experience as a public school teacher is a direct repudiation of DeVos.
“I can’t wait for the departure of Donald Trump and the chance to replace Betsy DeVos and the opportunity for us to make a whole lot of progress together,” Biden told NEA members in July. “This is going to be a teacher-oriented department of education.”
Sarah Darville contributed reporting.