There’s good news and bad news for Betsy DeVos on her anniversary as U.S. education secretary.
Some predicted that the most controversial member of President Trump’s highly controversial Cabinet wouldn’t last — and it was predicted that if she did stay, she would leave little trace. Wrong, and wrong.
In her first year, the Michigan billionaire began reshaping the department and altering its commitment to defending the civil rights of students. She also began changing federal student loan policy in ways that critics say will harm students. Her top priority — expanding alternatives to public schools and tearing down the wall between church and state when it comes to public funding of education — has been trumpeted in every speech she has given and in her budget priorities.
And now she is getting help from her allies, the conservative billionaire Koch brothers. Their network plans to spend a fortune on higher education initiatives to push their free-market agenda — as they have done in the past — and to expand the use of public money on private and religious education.
Even if DeVos left her job tomorrow — and there is no indication she has plans to go anytime soon — her agenda will be carried on by the Kochs and their allies in states across the country, where DeVos believes education policy and reform should be rooted. It’s no secret she thinks there should be no federal education department and, in fact, has declared that “government sucks.”
DeVos’s ability to push her agenda through regulation, guidance and the bully pulpit her office affords — even without total support from Congress or the Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget — is good news for her.
The bad news is that her many critics — who say she is intent on privatizing the public education system — have become more vocal than ever, with the president of the nation’s largest labor union, Lily Eskelsen García of the National Education Association, calling Wednesday for DeVos to resign.
Eskelsen García has long been critical of DeVos, calling her “the queen of for-profit privatization of public education.” The labor union leader had said she did not trust the administration’s motives, but not until now did she call for the secretary’s resignation. The union leader said in an op-ed:
Her actions during her first year in office have betrayed and undermined the fundamental mission public schools have to provide opportunity for every student who walks through the door. She doesn’t understand the concept of “public” schools — schools that are open to all students, no matter what language is spoken at home, what the family income is, what their religion or race is, what abilities or disabilities they have, whether they are gay, straight or transgender. . . . Betsy DeVos is not qualified to be the secretary of education. Betsy DeVos has failed our students. It is time for Betsy DeVos to resign.
Meanwhile, a coalition of education and civil rights groups called the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools delivered tens of thousands of “report cards” to the secretary. They gave her failing grades on issues that include ensuring access and equity in public schools for all students, protecting students’ civil rights, and using federal resources to supplement state and local resources for schools and districts that need help serving low-income and students of color.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union, which spearheaded the report cards initiative, said she was not calling on DeVos to quit. Instead, Weingarten said she wants the secretary to do her job in a way that protects young people and public education.
“There are a lot of Cabinet secretaries who I think shouldn’t be there who are, but if they are there, we are demanding that they do their jobs,” she said.
“If they don’t, the way to hold them accountable is in the 2018 and 2020 election, and this is why we wanted, a year into her tenure, to hear from teachers and paraprofessionals who are toiling every single day with the effects of her policies,” Weingarten said. “Let’s hear from them about why they are public-school proud and why they believe in their kids and in the American dream.”
In another protest on DeVos’s anniversary Wednesday, more than 700 parents of transgender children sent a letter to the secretary condemning what they said is her failure to protect those students.
DeVos famously said in 2015 that traditional public schools are a “dead end,” and on Twitter this week, public school teachers are inviting DeVos to visit their school to see what they do for children.
Of the several dozen schools DeVos has visited as education secretary, only about half are traditional public schools, even though they educate the vast majority of American schoolchildren. (The others she visited were private, religious or charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated.)