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Betsy DeVos and the politicization of education

betsy devos
U.S. Department of Education

Former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was an advocate for education issues that are popular with many conservatives while she was at the helm in Washington D.C. But DeVos' tenure in the Trump Administration came to an abrupt end last week when she resigned in protest after thousands of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

To get a better idea of DeVos' legacy, and how much of her agenda might outlive the Trump era, Stateside took a look at DeVos' work and top priorities, both here in Michigan and throughout the United States.

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Made in Michigan

Though she has influenced education policy and politics on the federal level these past four years, DeVos first played a key role in the expansion of school choice and charter school policies here in Michigan, says Chastity Pratt. She’s education bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal and based in Detroit.

“Some would even say that the charter school landscape that we have in Michigan, which is the majority of schools in Detroit, was because Betsy DeVos and her husband and their family really put a lot of money behind pushing for increased charter schools,” said Pratt. “Now we have a majority of the children in Detroit attending charter schools, and I think it’s the second or third largest charter district in the nation.”

Over the years, DeVos has been particularly motivated by the issue of school choice, says Greg McNeilly, a Republican strategist who’s worked with DeVos in a number of capacities, including as her confirmation manager when she became the new education secretary.

“She started having kids of her own that would go to schools, and she started noticing that the choices she was able to make were different than maybe her neighbors could make,” McNeilly said. “That sort of led to the series of questions anybody would have: what drives this? And it’s a pretty short distance to the answer that it’s public policy.”

Despite DeVos’ staunch support of alternatives to traditional public school education, measuring these programs’ success compared with that of public schools is complicated.

“Charter schools were really on par with traditional public schools for the better part of two decades and in the last few years they’ve been able to say that they’re doing better, but it’s marginally better. And only in some pockets, in some places,” Pratt said.

Pratt says DeVos, who is from West Michigan and a member of the billionaire DeVos family, lobbied for the expansion of charter schools and gave money to politicians who would support her top priorities in state policy.

“Money is king,” Pratt said. “That was really the big tool. You know: ‘You want to be a Republican legislator in this state? We’ll give you lots of money, but you have to do the work of school choice and charter schools.’ So that really led to the impact and, I think, put her at the forefront to become the U.S. Education Secretary.”

A controversial Secretary of Education

McNeilly says DeVos may have initially been hesitant about accepting a role in the Trump Administration.

“I think she had some reluctance because of what the country had experienced to that point with the President — the campaign — but then was struck by the opportunity to really make a difference,” McNeilly said.

DeVos brought the same goals that she’d become known for in Michigan to her job in the Department of Education, says Jon Valant, a senior fellow in the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. He says that she focused most on deregulation and providing alternatives to the traditional public school system.

But, Valant adds, despite the national scope of DeVos’ new platform, she may have brought about less concrete change federally than she did while advocating for school choice and charter school expansion on the state level in Michigan.

“If you want to have a lasting impact as an education secretary, really, what you need to do is get legislation done through Congress,” Valant said. “We had very little legislation in education over the last four years, so there won’t be that lasting impact through legislation.”

Valant says DeVos did manage to shift regulation surrounding Title IX, which deals with how accusations of sexual assault and sexual harassment are handled. While some of DeVos’ accomplishments may be relatively easy to reverse, her Title IX changes might be a bit more difficult for the Biden Administration to undo quickly, he adds.

David Jesse, who covers higher education for the Detroit Free Press, says DeVos’ efforts to shift how colleges and universities handle sexual assault are highly relevant in Michigan, where multiple universities have recently faced major sexual assault cases. With the changes DeVos implemented, universities must now hold a live hearing as part of the case, he says.

“A lot of folks pushed for the opportunity for someone who had been accused to question, to provide their own witnesses, to kind of make their argument in a more clear way,” Jesse said. “On the flip side, the survivors, those who have undergone sexual assault, say this will have the effect of just shrinking the number of people who want to come forward.”

DeVos’ record includes a rollbacks of some students’ civil rights protections, including for transgender students and students of color. Valant says that while President Barack Obama’s administration worked to identify systemic issues within the education system that might harm vulnerable students, DeVos had a different philosophy.

“The position of the DeVos administration was very different, in that they were not nearly as willing to focus on systemic issues when it comes to civil rights and thought that their obligations were much more just investigating individual cases as they came up,” Valant said.

An education secretary’s report card

In December, DeVos left employees at a meeting for the Department of Education with some eyebrow-raising parting words: “Be the resistance against forces that will derail you from doing what’s right for students. In everything you do, please put students first, always,” she said to them. She then sent a farewell letter to Congress on January 4 asking lawmakers to reject future efforts to change policies or guidance on a number of her priority issues.

But two days after that, thousands of Trump supporters — some of whom carried zip ties or Confederate Flags — stormed the U.S. Capitol in a violent insurrection attempt. The next day, DeVos sent a letter to Trump announcing that, effective January 8, she would resign from her role as Secretary of Education, making her the second member of Trump’s Cabinet to resign after the attack. In her letter, she cited his rhetoric’s role in helping incite the violence as “the inflection point” for her departure.

Valant says Betsy DeVos’ legacy can be summed up in a word: politicization.

“She took issues that either had been fairly bipartisan in the past or didn’t necessarily have to be politically charged, and she charged them,” Valant said.

He points to the expansion of charter schools, which previously received support from both the Clinton and Obama Administrations, as an example of an education policy issue that’s now grown divisive after being  backed by polarizing figures as Trump and DeVos.

“She would say, I think, that part of her legacy that she wants is that she changed the conversation,” Valant said. “I think that she did change the conversation, in the sense that she charged an issue, and we now have much less room for bipartisan agreement than we did before.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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