And through it all, she has pressed her central agenda: that students and families should have choices beyond their traditional public schools, and that tax dollars should follow those choices. She calls it “education freedom.”
The coronavirus, she has said, offers a “silver lining,” showing Americans that traditional schooling is not the only way. “This really is a moment for transformation,” she told conservative talk show host Glenn Beck in April.
“Education freedom” is also part of the solution to issues raised by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, President Trump and DeVos said last week. Trump — at the urging of his education secretary, according to a DeVos aide — called on Congress to pass a school choice program, citing it as an example of how he is “leading efforts to revitalize America’s underserved communities.”
“School choice is a big deal because access to education is the civil rights issue of our time,” he said in Dallas.
Teachers unions and many Democrats oppose school choice plans because they divert money from public schools to private and religious schools, some of which discriminate on the basis of religion or sexual orientation.
DeVos, though, was thrilled with Trump’s shout-out to her $5 billion tax credit proposal, which would fund scholarships to private schools and other expenses. “The time for action is now!” she wrote on Twitter.
And while that proposal has gone nowhere in Congress, DeVos has, throughout the pandemic, found smaller ways to press her priorities.
When Congress passed its pandemic relief package, it included $13.5 billion for K-12 schools, most of it to be distributed using a formula that favors high-poverty schools. But DeVos chose to distribute the money using a calculation that diverts millions of additional dollars to private schools — and away from high-poverty public schools. She said the law allowed her the flexibility to do so.
Leading Democrats and school leaders lambasted the move. Even Sen. Lamar Alexander (R.-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Education Committee and a DeVos ally, disagreed. A GOP congressional aide said lawmakers never contemplated the secretary’s move, and said her interpretation will make it difficult to get any money for private schools in the next relief bill.
After the pushback, DeVos doubled down, saying she would write her interpretation into a regulation, a step up from her nonbinding guidance.
She also used $180 million of the federal relief money to create a “microgrant” program that will allow parents to pay for educational expenses, including private school tuition. Critics say the grants are akin to vouchers, though the department notes states are free to use the money in a variety of other ways, too.
“The problem is here she is again standing up for private schools, and public school folks feel like she’s never protected or cared about them,” said Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. “As far as I can tell, she’s pretty much played to type.”
Nate Bailey, DeVos’s chief of staff, said the criticism is out of proportion, given that the money given to private schools, and the pot that may be used for vouchers, is a sliver of the $13.5 billion given to states for K-12 education. And he said her job is to protect children in all kinds of schools.
“By mission statement and long-standing practice, she is not the secretary of public education,” he said. “She is an advocate for all students. Private schools are facing just as much trouble as public ones.”
DeVos declined a request for an interview, but she’s made her viewpoints clear in a series of conversations with conservative radio and television talk-show hosts. One host echoed Trump’s label of the coronavirus as the “China virus.” Another declared his belief that Trump would be reelected and asked if DeVos would consider serving another term. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself or certainly ahead of President Trump,” she replied.
In each case, DeVos said the remote education forced on schools this spring has taught people there is more than one way for students to learn. She spent less time discussing the challenges of students, parents and teachers who have tried but struggled under this system, or the challenges faced by schools and families with less money or less access to tools to make remote learning work.
In a conversation last month on Sirius XM radio, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, asked DeVos if she was trying to “utilize this particular crisis to ensure that justice is finally done to our kids and the parents who choose to sent them to faith-based schools.”
“Yes, absolutely,” she replied.
DeVos has also faced criticism from higher-education advocates. The federal relief package, known as the Cares Act, provided $350 million for colleges with the greatest unmet needs. DeVos used it to direct hundreds of thousands of dollars to yeshivas, Bible schools and seminaries, regardless of their needs. After Democrats protested, the department reversed course.
She also took criticism for barring undocumented students from receiving emergency aid. Her interpretation is being challenged in court, and the Congressional Research Service said in a report that her rules were not supported by the statute. Nonetheless, last week she wrote her interpretation into a binding regulation, which officially bars millions of college students from pandemic relief grants.
Other moves since the start of the pandemic have drawn praise. She’s helped states opt out of annual student tests and created flexibility for how districts can deploy federal funding. She stood up for disabled student rights, saying districts cannot use the pandemic as an excuse not to provide legally required services.
She also halted collection and wage garnishment for past-due student loans. Critics say the department has been slow to implement the loan relief, but the decision still won kudos.
“I know I often criticize you,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote on Twitter, “but this is really really good.”
DeVos has not, however, taken on a public leadership role as districts grapple with how to make remote learning work, or where and how to reopen schools. She has said she wants to see schools open again but that those are local decisions, aides say. She also defers to federal health experts, including the CDC, and state officials.
Her aides say she’s done enormous outreach: Since mid-March, she has spoken with more than 65 governors and state education officials, as well as at least a few big city district leaders, according to a partial list of calls provided by an aide. She’s also participated in several conference calls and meetings with groups of education leaders. This month, the department invited education officials to a panel discussion on the practical applications of virtual learning.
But critics say she should do more — that DeVos is missing a valuable opportunity to guide schools through a historically challenging period.
“Districts have been pretty much completely on their own in trying to figure out the most massive logistical challenge they’ve ever faced,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington at Bothell, who has been studying district plans during the pandemic. “There’s no road map, and leadership is needed.”
Asked if DeVos was capable of filling that role, Lake said, “I honestly don’t know because I haven’t seen her try.”
Sasha Pudelski, advocacy director for AASA, the lobby group for superintendents, said the federal agency could help districts avoid duplicating efforts when time is short.
“Why should every district be tasked with trying to answer some of the same questions?” she asked. “It’s foolish to put that burden on districts.”
Even some allies say she’s been too quiet. Jeanne Allen, chief executive for the Center for Education Reform, strongly supports the school choice agenda. To that end, she said DeVos should do more to lift up programs such as Success Academy, a charter school network in New York City, while shining a light to “shame” those who are failing.
“The bully pulpit remains one of the most important things,” Allen said. “When you’re not using the bully pulpit . . . you’re not getting as much out of the office as you could deliver.”
Danielle Douglas-Gabriel contributed reporting.