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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…
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