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Betsy DeVos leaves behind a stark but transient legacy at Trump's Education Department

Aarthi Swaminathan and Reggie Wade
·10 min read

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, one of President Donald Trump’s original Cabinet members, resigned on Thursday evening after the president incited a mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6.

The resignation, effective Friday, brings an end to one of the most contentious periods in recent Education Department (ED) history.

Beyond the ED being sued 455 times during her tenure — the most in any administration since ED became a Cabinet-level agency in 1980 — what is Devos’ legacy?

I don't think there's going to be much of a legacy once the Biden folks get to work,” Michael Petrilli, a former ED official and current head of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank, told Yahoo Finance. “The things that they did via guidance or regulation are going to be undone pretty quickly.”

President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos pose for a photo after their meeting at Trump International Golf Club, November 19, 2016 in Bedminster Township, New Jersey. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
President-elect Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos pose for a photo after their meeting at Trump International Golf Club, November 19, 2016 in Bedminster Township, New Jersey. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

DeVos didn’t enact much lasting policy, recently lamenting that the federal government was “even more bureaucratic than any of us could have ever imagined, and it takes longer to get anything done than I could have ever imagined.”

The DeVos-era footprint is largely shaped by litigation related to overturning Obama-era policies, her policies focused on disempowering the public K-12 school system, and her defense of for-profit colleges.

The ED declined multiple interview requests and requests for comment.

Getting government out of the way’

DeVos became the 11th Secretary of Education in February 2017 after a rocky confirmation hearing.

When asked if she believed guns had a place in schools, DeVos responded that she would leave that decision up to local governments. She added that in Wyoming, “I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.”

DeVos won confirmation after a tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Mike Pence, marking the first time in U.S. history that a vice president’s vote was necessary to approve a Cabinet nominee.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 17:  Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to be the next Secretary of Education, testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill  January 17, 2017 in Washington, DC. DeVos is known for her advocacy of school choice and education voucher programs and is a long-time leader of the Republican Party in Michigan.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to be the next Secretary of Education, testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill January 17, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A billionaire from Michigan and Republican mega donor, as well as sister of Blackwater Founder Erik Prince, DeVos embarked on an aggressive mission to dismantle ED policies put in place during the eight-year administration of President Barack Obama.

“Secretary DeVos characterized her approach as getting government out of the way so that teachers could do their jobs,” Adam Kissel, former deputy assistant secretary for higher education from 2017 to 2018 at ED, told Yahoo Finance. (Kissel wrote about his experience at ED in a recent op-ed.)

That ethos manifested in 2020 as schools looked for federal-level direction amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Joanne Weiss, the chief of staff to Obama-era Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the director of the Race to the Top Program, told Yahoo Finance that the lack of ED directives in 2020 was “absolutely unconscionable. The superintendents were supposed to understand the science and make these decisions for themselves. The government just completely abdicated its responsibility during the coronavirus … it was just a sham of what government is supposed to do.”

A teacher works with a student behind a shield at Freedom Preparatory Academy on September 10, 2020 in Provo, Utah. - In person schooling with masks has started up in many Utah schools since shutting down in March of this year due to the covid-19 virus. (Photo by GEORGE FREY / AFP) (Photo by GEORGE FREY/AFP via Getty Images)
A teacher works with a student behind a shield at Freedom Preparatory Academy on September 10, 2020 in Provo, Utah. (Photo: GEORGE FREY/AFP via Getty Images)

Ironically, the biggest obstacle DeVos faced may have been her boss: The “Trumpian psychodrama,” according to Rick Hess, director of education studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, made it even more difficult to enact any new education policies.

Trump's personality and approach to the office were horribly suited to trying to get anything done in education,” Hess said, explaining that enacting education policy requires “putting together coalitions that have some component of crossing and Trump’s entire approach was predicated on polarizing” various sides of any given issue.

Amid renewed urgency to reopen schools as new studies came out that seemingly revealed that children were not transmitting coronavirus at high levels, for example, Trump “managed to make it such a culture war clash,” Hess noted. “I think [that situation] could have been a real opportunity for Secretary DeVos and the administration to get up front saying, ‘Well, we have to protect educators and communities, but schools have got to be their job.’”

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the daily coronavirus response briefing as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos looks on at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 27, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the daily coronavirus response briefing as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos looks on at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 27, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

When people tell you who they are, you should listen’

DeVos, who previously spearheaded a radical expansion of charter schools in Michigan, directed a lot of ED energy toward the K-12 space.

DeVos never cared about public education that 90% of kids go to,” Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, told Yahoo Finance Live. “She basically cared about undermining it, and dismantling it, and destabilizing it. And so, she leaves a legacy of basically just undermining what people tried to do as educators.”

Roughly 90% of American students in the K-12 system attend public schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, while the remaining 10% attend private schools.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies before the House Education Committee on "Examining the Policies and Priorities of the U.S. Department of Education" on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies before the House Education Committee on "Examining the Policies and Priorities of the U.S. Department of Education" on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 22, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Leah Millis)

National Education Association Chief Becky Pringle, head of a union that represents 3 million educators, asserted that “there are no highlights” to the DeVos era.

“When people tell you who they are, you should listen,” Pringle told Yahoo Finance of DeVos. “And I think that Donald Trump did. And the purpose of her being in that position was to advance her herself and other billionaires who saw education as an industry that they could mine, and do their very best to destroy.”

A 2020 Network for Public Education report revealed that the federal government spent more than $1 billion on “ghost schools” — charter schools that never opened. The data highlights how Michigan, where DeVos had led the charter school push, had been granted $111,074,605 in federal tax dollars since 1995 through ED’s Charter Schools Program with dismal results.

Echoing Weingarten, Pringle added: “For the Secretary of Education to be someone who ignored 90% of the students who are in public schools and spent her time focusing on 10% of the students who are in private schools really pretty much says everything you need to know.”

US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (L), Ivanka Trump (C) and Eric Trump walk to board Marine One at the White House in Washington, DC, on July 31, 2018 as US President Donald Trump departs for Florida. (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP)        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)
US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (L), Ivanka Trump (C) and Eric Trump walk to board Marine One at the White House in Washington, DC, on July 31, 2018 as US President Donald Trump departs for Florida. (Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP)

‘Decimated the office of civil rights’

Pringle also asserted that DeVos “decimated the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education because she had no intention of being a champion for students.”

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights is responsible for investigating discrimination complaints in U.S. schools and often deals with issues and objections based on race, sex, and disability. Under DeVos, more cases were closed in 2018 and 2019 than in any year during Obama’s presidency.

DeVos also made changes to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. Under the new provisions, those accused of campus sexual harassment and assault would be granted expanded protections.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 12:  U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies during a hearing before House Education and Labor Committee December 12, 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on "Examining the Education Department's Implementation of Borrower Defense."  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies during a hearing before House Education and Labor Committee December 12, 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“We can, and must, condemn sexual violence and punish those who perpetrate it while ensuring a fair grievance process,” DeVos said in 2018. “Those are not mutually exclusive ideas. They are the very essence of how Americans understand justice to function.” The new provisions were finalized in 2020.

Reflecting on the agenda for the Biden administration, Pringle listed the first item she’d prioritize: “To undo the harm that Betsy DeVos has done.”

Doing so, according to Pringle, would involved a “reckoning with hundreds of years, centuries of institutional racism, and how that has impacted the opportunity and access of millions and millions of Black and Brown and native students.”

Federal Student Aid system seen as ‘one of the nation’s largest banks’

In terms of higher education, DeVos is most known for rescinding Obama-era rules regarding oversight of for-profit schools, suspending forgiveness to those who had attended now-defunct schools, and lambasting the current federal student loan system.

Helming ED was essentially a “management job” that involved running “one of the nation’s largest banks,” according to DeVos. There was no substantial progress on the student debt crisis, which includes a federal loan portfolio of more than $1.55 trillion owed by roughly 42 million borrowers.

“What she inherited was not fabulous, but she made a mess of it,” said AFT’s Weingarten. “Ask anyone who has tried to get Public Service Loan Forgiveness, or is trying to figure out what their repayment plan is.”

(Graphic: David Foster)
(Graphic: David Foster)

Kissel, the former ED staffer, agreed with DeVos in the argument that the Obama-era programs unfairly came down on for-profits when many not-for-profits were also guilty of the same bad behavior.

Applications for debt relief through borrower defense surged as the Obama administration regulated for-profit schools. DeVos, claiming that the Obama administration “weaponized” the rule to crack down on schools “it simply didn’t like,” placed a hold on approving borrower defense applications.

The stance by DeVos “seemed to be just a complete lack of compassion for students who were mistreated and did not get the value from their education,” Bob Shireman, senior fellow at the Century Foundation and former ED official during the Obama administration, told Yahoo Finance. “It seemed to be her assumption that borrowers were trying to take advantage somehow… it boggles my mind.”

The ED then rewrote the roles to offer only partial cancellation of student loans for defrauded students. Both the House and the Senate passed legislation to overturn that new policy in March 2020, but President Trump vetoed the bill in support of DeVos.

Overall, the DeVos-era actions on borrower defense “hurt borrowers … [and] permanently damaged the integrity of the federal student aid program,” Toby Merrill, an attorney who leads Harvard’s Project on Predatory Lending, told Yahoo Finance. “The borrower defense process should hold institutions accountable and provide relief to borrowers, and dramatic action will be required to move the process back in that direction.”

DeVos is expected to be replaced by former public school teacher Miguel Cardona.

Aarthi Swaminathan is a reporter for Yahoo Finance, covering education. She can be reached at aarthi@yahoofinance.com. Follow her on Twitter at @aarthiswami.

Reggie Wade is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @ReggieWade.

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