Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' Controversial Legacy
- As education secretary, Betsy DeVos issued controversial guidance and pushed budget cuts.
- The secretary's overhaul of Obama-era school policies are poised to be flipped back.
- DeVos' name will remain glued to hot-button issues, including school reopenings.
Betsy DeVos occupies a difficult position in the annals of American education. A uniquely controversial secretary of education, DeVos championed reduced federal involvement in education, proposed budget cuts, and overturned landmark Obama-era school guidelines. She fought to allow federal dollars to follow students to private and charter schools. And along with President Donald Trump, DeVos insisted schools reopen during the pandemic.
Like many of DeVos' education crusades, the push for school reopenings was a polarizing move. Democrats and Republicans remain split over whether schools should welcome back students. Even as evidence mounts that closures may pose more dangers to students than the coronavirus, some educators worry DeVos' association with this stance will inhibit bipartisan action.
“Much of the work [Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos] did was in undoing, and can similarly be undone.”
The controversy DeVos instigates may just be her greatest legacy. Polls show DeVos is the least popular member of Trump's cabinet. "I don't think there is another secretary of education who is better known than her throughout our history," said Becky Pringle, head of the National Education Association (NEA).
For better or worse, DeVos shined a new light on education policy. Just as the secretary's Department of Education reversed many policies put in place under President Barack Obama, the upcoming Democratic administration is likely to roll back DeVos' actions.
Here, we take a look at the most significant moves DeVos made as education secretary.
DeVos Rewrote Title IX Sexual Assault Investigation Rules
The first of Trump-era education policies on the chopping block could involve Title IX. DeVos worked to limit the federal government's role in education, but when it came to how schools deal with sexual assault on campus, she expanded the federal role.
Effective in August, DeVos replaced loose guidance with Title IX rules that carry the force of law. Colleges that don't follow the new investigation protocols for sexual misconduct claims risk forfeiting federal funds.
By contrast, the Obama administration urged schools to believe victims of sexual assault. Guidance issued through memorandums in 2011 and 2014 held schools liable for all student complaints of sexual harassment, on and off campus. Students did not need to lodge an official complaint or be enrolled in order to open an investigation. In most cases, a single investigator reviewed the case.
DeVos got heat from victims’ rights groups who insisted the new Title IX rule changes walked back progress.
The new Title IX rules, however, require that students file a formal complaint with a Title IX coordinator or school official. They must be enrolled, and the sexual misconduct must have occurred in a place over which the college maintains "substantial control" (this includes buildings owned by official student organizations, like fraternities). In addition, the investigation must include a live cross-examination.
DeVos got heat from victims' rights groups who insisted the rule changes walked back progress. College campuses are rife with unwanted sexual contact, and the Obama-era dictates were credited with empowering the upswell in the number of students coming forward.
Still, dozens of students found guilty of sexual assault by the old investigation standards went on to win lawsuits against their schools. The new standards ask for a higher degree of proof that the incident occurred.
President-elect Joe Biden plans to put a "quick end" to the Title IX update and restore the Obama-era guidance around sexual assault allegations. While many speculate the reversal could be accomplished by executive order, others say it would require an extensive regulatory process.
DeVos Pushed Schools to Reopen Amid COVID-19
DeVos demanded schools and colleges reopen for in-person learning this fall but left how to do so safely up to institutions. Her hard line that schools get students back in the classroom or lose federal funding drew the ire of many educators, but growing evidence backs the controversial directive.
Organizations like UNICEF and NEA echo DeVos’ urgency in getting students back in school.
Children's health and education leaders, such as UNICEF, NEA, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, say students must return to school. Children rely on school for not only academics but also socialization, mental health, and physical health. Research shows schools do not serve as hotbeds of viral transmission, and critics argue that keeping schools closed "conflicts with science and students' well-being."
Some insist DeVos' other pandemic-era actions haven't been urgent enough. Colleges received half of the $31 billion Congress set aside for education in the early months of COVID-19. But with further aid still caught in Congress, many college and government leaders claim the funds don't sufficiently cover schools' needs. Institutions struggle with expenses associated with transferring education online, installing plexiglass and ventilation systems, and outfitting testing centers.
Students aren't excluded from financial woes, either. While the Department of Education suspended payments and interest on federal student loans, momentum is collecting behind the next administration to cancel student debt.
DeVos Championed School Choice and Charter Schools
One of the most frequent criticisms of DeVos is that she lacks any direct education experience — she's never taught in a classroom or served on a school board. But she has been a longtime supporter of charter schools. Empowering school choice was perhaps DeVos' biggest policy goal as secretary of education.
DeVos worked to expand school choice by allowing students to take federal funding with them. She proposed giving $400 million in school vouchers toward public, private, and charter schools. DeVos also proposed Education Freedom Scholarships, which would have provided up to $5 billion per year for children to attend the schools of their choice. In the end, Congress nixed both proposals.
In working to expand school choice, DeVos proposed giving $400 million in school vouchers toward public, private, and charter schools.
Like other education policies advanced by the Trump administration, school choice is an attempt to resolve education issues by introducing market competition. Critics of school choice warn that privatizing education poses an existential threat to American public schools. For every child who opts for a charter school, a private school, or homeschooling, public schools lose nearly $13,000 a year.
Proponents, however, say school choice holds promise for educational equity. If students can put federal funds toward any school, they can pursue the best educational opportunities available in their area. This would put pressure on schools to compete and focus on academic excellence to keep enrollment numbers up.
In theory, school choice promises to aid students and force education to innovate — but some evidence suggests otherwise, making DeVos' support of the policy a sticking point for many educational leaders and parents.
DeVos Stepped Around Student Loan Debt
College affordability tops the worry list for many students. While the Trump administration issued budgets, proposals, and executive orders that impact college affordability, DeVos did not substantially address either student debt or tuition costs over the past four years.
Free college and student debt forgiveness have gained political momentum, but DeVos opposes both proposals, calling them "socialist." Instead, the secretary insists that more funding does not lead to better outcomes. Citing overly lax guidelines and ineffective outcomes, DeVos pruned existing options to pay for college.
Millions of people in the U.S. carry heavy student loan debt. Paying back that debt eats into education's financial rewards and holds back many student borrowers, particularly low-income, Black, and brown borrowers.
DeVos opposes both free college and student debt forgiveness proposals, calling them “socialist.”
One reason students of color wind up saddled with greater debt is that they're more likely to attend for-profit colleges. Some for-profits, including the University of Phoenix, have come under fire for using predatory advertising practices. Lawsuits found these schools pushed vulnerable students through the enrollment and loan processes with big promises of booming career tracks that ultimately failed to materialize.
To protect students from unfair debt, the Obama administration established the borrower defense to repayment. When DeVos took office, however, the Department of Education stopped reviewing submitted cases as it began rewriting the rule. Now, borrowers must provide evidence not just that the school misled them, but that the school intended to mislead them as well. A higher standard of proof closes the door to debt forgiveness on more students.
Despite all this, DeVos did do some good for borrowers by revamping the TEACH Grant. This program pays the college bills of newly minted teachers who plan to work in high-need schools. Like other federal repayment programs, the TEACH Grant failed to help many applicants. DeVos apologized and overhauled the program, helping thousands of teachers get rid of debt.
DeVos Leaves Behind a Fraught Legacy
DeVos logged a few bipartisan wins in her time as secretary of education, but her divisiveness may linger longer than any of her policy changes. As a result, some commentators have charged DeVos with eroding Democratic support for key education issues.
Two of DeVos' biggest pushes — to give students school choice and to get them back in the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic — possess merit but have lost traction due to their association with the Trump administration's vision for education.
Indeed, the DeVos stigma could very well outlast the DeVos legacy.
Feature Image: Alex Wong / Staff / Getty Images News / Getty Images North America