The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Betsy DeVos is an abysmal failure and our nation’s schoolchildren are paying the price

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos holds a news conference at the Department of Education on July 13, 2017. (Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post)
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Months after schools across the country closed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, it’s still not clear how, or even if, children can safely return to classrooms in the coming weeks and months. Despite the best efforts of teachers suddenly plunged into teaching remotely, the loss of learning has been staggering, especially for low-income students. This would be the moment, you’d think, when the nation’s top education policy official would step up and attempt to offer leadership and best practices going forward. Instead, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is missing in action, at least when it comes to the issues that matter most.

Almost two months ago, the American Federation of Teachers released a plan detailing how schools could reopen safely. Their recommendations include mandatory hand-washing on entering the school and capping class sizes to encourage physical distancing. Last month, the conservative American Enterprise Institute released one as well; among other things, it urges schools to evaluate students for learning gaps as a result of the closures.

The Education Department, by contrast, is all but silent, issuing little in the way of guidance, and doing little to review what did and didn’t work. Anecdotal evidence suggests many parents and teachers found virtual learning dissatisfactory, while surveys found a large number of students didn’t attend their online classes regularly. A poll of North Carolina parents found a majority believed their children learned less online than in-person. The Education Department’s response? According to The Post’s Laura Meckler, just this month, “the department invited education officials to a panel discussion on the practical applications of virtual learning."

The result is that states, cities and individual districts are on their own trying to dig out of a deep hole. One study estimates that students will return for the new academic year — if they return at all, that is — with less than half the gains in math knowledge they normally would be expected to possess.

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It’s not that DeVos isn’t hard at work — it’s just that she’s not devoting her efforts to what we would assume a federal education head should be prioritizing. For DeVos, the pandemic is no obstacle to pushing her long crusade for charter schools and “school choice,” not to mention cracking down on people struggling to repay student loans. She’s attempted to reroute a portion of the $13.5 billion in the Cares Act dedicated for K-12 funding needs — money that’s supposed to be distributed based on poverty and need formulas — to independent and religious schools. She continues to promote school choice and the use of vouchers. She’s fighting efforts by colleges to include undocumented students among the recipients of money designated for helping students in need. And her Education Department has continued to collect student loan payments from borrowers in default even though the Cares Act had suspended such collections and the department had promised to comply.

“It is absolutely mind-blowing that the basic functions of the department are not getting done because she is so ideologically against public schooling,” says AFT president Randi Weingarten. “The level at which the Department of Education has abdicated responsibility for the safety, well-being and instructional success of the 90 percent of children in America who go to public schools is stunning.”

Shocking, yes, but hardly surprising. Over the past 3½ years, DeVos has done yeoman work supporting the nihilistic approach of the Trump administration, backing budgets that would take away money from everything from after-school activities to the Special Olympics. Time and again her pet causes have taken precedence over what’s best for teachers and students. Now, facing an unprecedented crisis for education, DeVos has again abandoned the field. She deserves an F for her time in office.

Nearly 6 in 10 Americans who are working outside their homes are concerned that they could be exposed to the virus at work and infect their families. (Video: The Washington Post)

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Randi Weingarten: This summer, we can test-drive best practices for safely reopening schools

Kathleen Parker: Covid-19 is killing Catholic schools — and hurting the minorities that attend them

Danielle Allen: We’ve wasted enough time. We must figure out how to reopen schools this fall.

Lanhee J. Chen and Vanila M. Singh: Here’s how college students can return to campus in the fall

Jeb Bush: It’s time to embrace distance learning — and not just because of the coronavirus