Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proclaimed this week that her proudest accomplishments in her first year in office were shrinking the role of the agency, rolling back Obama-era initiatives and erasing outdated regulations.
The secretary reflected on her tenure a year after she was installed in the post, following a trial-by-fire confirmation. Last year, the Senate confirmed her by the narrowest margin possible — with Vice President Pence casting a tie-breaking vote to make her education secretary. It was the first time a vice president had to vote to confirm a Cabinet member.
Her rocky confirmation process would portend a tumultuous year, inspiring protest after protest and riling public education advocates.
DeVos rolled back key regulations and guidance documents intended to protect transgender students, student borrowers and victims of sexual assault — all in the name of reining in a department whose role she said had grown too large. She used budget cuts and buyouts to reduce the size of the agency.
“Some of the most important work we’ve done in this first year has been around the area of overreach and rolling back the extended footprint of this department to a significant extent,” DeVos said Wednesday in a far-reaching interview with The Washington Post and other news organizations.
She is a rarity among education secretaries, having never worked in public schools before her appointment.
“I frankly think it’s been an asset because I don’t know what can’t be done,” DeVos said.
She lamented that the GOP-led Congress has impeded her progress by not confirming her nominees for key positions — although data from the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which tracks presidential appointments, show the delays are not significantly out of line with what previous administrations encountered.
“We have many qualified, capable individuals waiting to come and contribute up here . . . and they’re just messing around in that building up on the Hill,” DeVos said.
Congress also rejected many of her budget proposals, which aimed to cut after-school programs and teacher training so that money could be redirected to a massive school choice initiative, including funding for private school vouchers and charter schools.
DeVos scored a modest victory when Congress expanded college savings accounts to allow families to use them for private-school tuition, which she hailed as “an important step.”
Not long after she was confirmed, she and Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a “Dear Colleague” letter issued by the Obama administration that instructed schools to let transgender students use bathrooms that align with their gender identity. Families of transgender students warned her that removing the guidance would imperil their already vulnerable children.
She undid many regulations intended to protect student borrowers, calling those rules an overreach of federal authority, and has delayed repaying students who were defrauded by for-profit colleges. And she rescinded guidance that outlined how universities, colleges and schools should investigate sexual assault, saying rules issued under Obama failed to strike the right balance between alleged victims and the accused, issuing less stringent rules in the interim.
“We need to get it right for all students,” she said, “and it clearly hasn’t worked for a lot of students.”
Critics have charged that rolling back the sexual assault rules has had a chilling effect on sexual assault victims, contributing to a drop in reports. DeVos bristled at the suggestion that the new rules could discourage students from reporting sexual assault.
“I would hate to think that it had a chilling effect on any student that has been the victim of a sexual assault or a sexual crime,” DeVos said. “I don’t think that the interim guidance that we provided ultimately really does that in any way.”
DeVos said she aims to tackle college affordability. She wants to de-emphasize college and encourage students to pursue other possibilities. That aligns with President Trump’s vision for more vocational education.
She spoke of “elevating in a new way the multitude of pathways to a good career and a good job beyond high school and acknowledging that for too long we have focused too much on four-year college and universities.”