The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Government, Betsy DeVos once said, ‘sucks.’ Now she’s wielding its power to push her agenda.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
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There’s a narrative being told in parts of the education world about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that goes like this: Without Congress to support her initiatives, she can’t carry out her agenda.

Well, tell that to the victims of sexual assault who opposed her decision, announced Friday, to rescind Obama-era guidance on how schools should address accusations of campus assault, which victims had said had given them long-needed protections. Or to transgender students who watched her back the Trump administration order that the nation’s public schools disregard Obama-era guidance saying that prohibiting transgender students from using facilities that align with their gender identity violates U.S. law.

Tell that to some student loan borrowers who have lost some of consumer protections first set under President Barack Obama and removed by DeVos.

Tell that to public school advocates who hear her continually use the power of her position to criticize traditional public schools and talk up alternatives such as charter school and programs that use public money to pay for private and religious school tuition.

DeVos, a Michigan billionaire, has repeatedly derided the federal government as being, at best, meddlesome, and she has flatly said that government “sucks.”

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Nevertheless, she has used government power to change policy toward her liking, which has largely been to dismantle what many saw as consumer and civil rights protections, and thus to allow the already powerful to reclaim prerogatives they felt they had lost in the last administration.

She is a prime example of the Trump model of government service: To use the power of the federal government with the stated purpose of returning power to states and localities but with the effect of directing policy toward her own policy goals.

While DeVos’s past advocacy has centered on school choice, her agenda extends well beyond that — and to make progress with it she doesn’t necessarily need Congress.  While it is true that the proposed budget that DeVos and President Trump sent to Congress most certainly won’t be approved — even Republicans had warned her that some of the suggested cuts were preposterous — she is hardly powerless.

When it comes to civil rights, she wields enormous power, as shown by Friday’s decision to rescind guidance issued in 2011 by the Obama administration that put in legal protections under the federal Title IX law for victims of sexual assault. The decision came only two days after the deadline for public input, underscoring DeVos’s obvious commitment to changing course. In February, DeVos was reported to have been initially opposed to the Trump administration’s decision to roll back federal guidelines specifying that transgender students have the right to use public-school restrooms that match their gender identity — but she went ahead and issued a statement supporting it, saying the issue was best left to state and local officials to make policy.

For decades, DeVos has been working at the state level, in philosophical alliance with the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to push state laws that expand school choice and privatization. That agenda scored a victory recently in Illinois, where this past May several dozen legislators signed a letter to Gov. Bruce Rauner (R), who had thrown his support to DeVos’s nomination as education secretary in January. It was no surprise when Rauner managed to push through a new school funding law recently in the state legislature that included a new program that uses public dollars to fund private and religious school tuition and educational expenses.

This ALEC state report card speaks volumes about Betsy DeVos’s education agenda

That was a victory for DeVos, who has called the traditional public education system a “dead end” and has spent decades and part of her fortune pushing school-choice initiatives in her home state of Michigan and elsewhere.

Knowing that Congress is not going to provide funding for many of her priorities, she is using the power of the federal bully pulpit to push states to do it. She said as much at an ALEC conference this summer. On the issue of free speech, she said:

“For state legislators, you have the power of the purse. And I wouldn’t hope to suggest how you might approach that, but I think that really bringing some of the most egregious examples to the forefront — we all have the opportunity to use our bully pulpits to talk about these things and bring light to places of darkness where speech is not being allowed to be free and open and heard.”

She added:

“Let me say I think this is a really, really important issue, one that has become even more important in the last couple of years. We have seen in far too many cases an intolerance toward listening to and at least hearing from others that have different perspectives than ours.”