It would not be an overstatement to call 2017 an extraordinary year for Betsy DeVos.
After decades as an advocate pushing a school choice agenda — alternatives to traditional public schools, including those that use public money for private education — she became the U.S. education secretary with a pulpit to evangelize about her No. 1 priority and regulatory power to mold policy.
Even before she was confirmed by the Senate in February, she was already the most controversial of President Trump’s Cabinet appointees. While Trump gave her full-throated approval, critics charged that she was unqualified to be the steward of public education in the United States, not only because she had no experience in public schools but also because she had declared the traditional education system “a dead end.”
Her January confirmation hearing was contentious, with Democratic members of the Senate education committee grilling her and DeVos displaying a lack of knowledge about education fundamentals. The vote to confirm her in the full Senate went forward only after Mike Pence became the first vice president in history to have to break a tie for a Cabinet nominee.
Since then, controversy has followed her everywhere she goes, with protesters showing up at most of her public events, including a September appearance at Harvard University where students quietly protested from the audience while she spoke. On some occasions, her own words created a backlash.
Despite the controversy, DeVos remained steadfast in her determination to push school choice — arguing that traditional public schools were not serving all children well. Throughout the year, the occasional rumor would circulate that she was a short-timer, eager to quit because she had no real authority to change policy. But she made clear repeatedly she has no intention of quitting, and she has plenty of regulatory power to move policy in the direction she chooses.
Though even Republican senators refused to support the full 2018 budget proposal for the Education Department put forth by DeVos and Trump, saying that some of the funding cuts were unacceptable, they did embrace her school choice philosophy. In the overhaul of the tax code signed into law this month by Trump, congressional Republicans granted financial incentives for families to send their children to private school, a move supported by DeVos.
Here are eight things DeVos said during the year that reveal several things: how rocky her year was, the beliefs she holds fast, and what she is striving to accomplish as education secretary.
1) During DeVos’s Jan. 17 confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) asked whether she would agree that guns don’t belong in schools. She said:
“I will refer back to Sen. [Mike] Enzi and the school he was talking about in Wyoming. I think probably there, I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.”
That statement had a long after-life, cited not only for DeVos’s refusal to support gun bans at schools but also as an example of her inability to articulate an answer in a setting where many expected her to be more prepared.
Three weeks after becoming education secretary, she released a statement that called historically black colleges and universities “pioneers of school choice.” The problem with that was it ignored the history of why they came into existence: Black students were not allowed to attend white institutions and had no choice but to go to schools specifically created for them. Here’s what the statement said in part:
“They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education. They saw that the system wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution. HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”
After a backlash, she walked back the “pioneers of school choice” notion in a series of tweets. It was a prime example of some of the verbal missteps that rocked her initial days at the Education Department.
3) DeVos visited a traditional public school in the District early in her tenure and later described her stop in terms that teachers found insulting. She told columnist Cal Thomas of the conservative online publication Townhall that the teachers seemed dedicated and sincere but were in “receive mode.”
“I visited a school on Friday and met with some wonderful, genuine, sincere teachers who pour their heart and soul into their classrooms and their students, and our conversation was not long enough to draw out of them what is limiting them from being even more successful from what they are currently. But I can tell the attitude is more of a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child. You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.”
DeVos has expressed admiration for teachers and has called for them to have more control over what goes on in their classrooms, but this description did not endear her to teachers at the school she visited. They tweeted their distaste, and Kaya Henderson, the former D.C. schools chancellor, tweeted this: “Sorry lady. Tried to give you the benefit of the doubt. But this is so amateur and unprofessional that it’s astounding. We deserve better.”
4) In speech after speech, DeVos would savage her critics, calling people who don’t share her vision for school choice “defenders of the status quo” (which her Democratic predecessor, Arne Duncan, did as well) and more. At a speech she gave in Indianapolis in May to the American Federation for Children’s National Policy Summit, an organization promoting school choice that she founded and led, she called them “flat-Earthers.”
“The point is to provide quality options that serve students so each of them can grow. Every option should be held accountable, but they should be directly accountable to parents and communities, not to Washington, D.C., bureaucrats.
“In order to succeed, education must commit to excellence and innovation to better meet the needs of individual students. Defenders of our current system have regularly been resistant to any meaningful change. In resisting, these ‘flat-Earthers’ have chilled creativity and stopped American kids from competing at the highest levels. Our current framework is a closed system that relies on one-size-fits-all solutions. We need an open system that envelopes choices and embraces the future.”
Along with other insults, such as “sycophants of the system,” DeVos has made clear she can find no common cause with people who don’t agree with her.
At a May hearing before the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies about the Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal, which called for cutting more than 13 percent from education programs and re-investing $1.4 billion of the savings into promoting school choice, DeVos was asked whether private schools that accept public funds should be able to discriminate against some students. She said it was up to the states.
During the hearing, Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) said one private school in Indiana that accepts vouchers maintains it may deny admission to LGBT students or those coming from families with “homosexual or bisexual activity.” She asked DeVos whether she would tell the state of Indiana it could not discriminate that way if it accepted federal funding should a school choice program be created. Clark further asked what DeVos would say if a voucher school rejected African American students and the state “said it was okay.”
To Clark’s question about whether she would step in, DeVos responded: “Well again, the Office of Civil Rights and our Title IX protections are broadly applicable across the board, but when it comes to parents making choices on behalf of their students. . .”
Clark interrupted and said, “This isn’t about parents making choices, this is about the use of federal dollars. Is there any situation? Would you say to Indiana, that school cannot discriminate against LGBT students if you want to receive federal dollars? Or would you say the state has the flexibility?”
DeVos said: “I believe states should continue to have flexibility in putting together programs. . .”
6) When Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord on June 1, DeVos issued a statement the same day applauding the move. A few days later, when DeVos was asked by reporters about her views on climate change, she responded:
“Certainly, the climate changes. Yes.”
Not only was that an example of her refusal to directly answer many questions, but it also suggested the U.S. education secretary supports Trump’s view that human-caused climate change is not real — despite overwhelming scientific evidence that it is.
7) In a June interview with the New York Times, DeVos said this about her children’s education, which was at private religious schools (as was hers):
“If you ask any of my kids today what their most important experience was in their education, they would say it was the travel and the ability to see and be in other cultures.”
8) In describing her vision for school choice, DeVos often says parents should have the right to choose whatever school works for their children, and has said she views success as being measured by how much school choice expands during her tenure. She explained her philosophy in a March speech, saying that selecting a school should be like choosing among Lyft, Uber or a taxi. And then, in September, during a speech at Harvard, she said:
“Near the Department of Education, there aren’t many restaurants. But you know what? Food trucks started lining the streets to provide options. Some are better than others, and some are even local restaurants that have added food trucks to their businesses to better meet customers’ needs.
“Now, if you visit one of those food trucks instead of a restaurant, do you hate restaurants? Or are you trying to put grocery stores out of business?
“No. You are simply making the right choice for you based on your individual needs at that time.
“Just as in how you eat, education is not a binary choice. Being for equal access and opportunity — being for choice — is not being against anything.”
Teacher Peter Greene, who writes the Curmudgucation blog, noted, “As always, DeVos chooses an analogy that paints education as a commercial transaction in which the customer buys some good or service. That is a flawed concept. . . . Like every other commercial enterprise, the food trucks of the District are not geared to handle all customers. There are many reasons that comparing schools to businesses is a huge fail, but this is one of the hugest: There is no business sector in this country built on the idea of serving every single person in the country.”