WASHINGTON ― Cabinet secretaries are rarely household names. For every Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton, there are 10 Ann Venemans and Anthony Foxxes. If an official does gain wider name recognition, it’s usually someone in a higher position like the attorney general or secretary of state.
Under President Donald Trump, however, something different is happening: Everyone hates the education secretary, the person who is 16th in line to the presidency and controls only 3 percent of the federal budget.
Lawmakers and activists say they’ve heard more about Betsy DeVos than any other Cabinet secretary ever ― often from people who aren’t usually politically engaged.
“All the time,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “This is true in town halls, when I’m walking down the sidewalk in my neighborhood, when I go into the grocery store. People come up to me to talk about Betsy DeVos. There’s just no comparison. I’ve never had this happen with any other Cabinet secretary.”
“There is no one in America more unpopular than Betsy DeVos,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). “To have somebody who scorns public education, who never went to a public school, her children never went to a public school... to be in charge of public education is an outrage.”
A HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted Oct. 9-10 found that, indeed, DeVos is Trump’s most unpopular Cabinet official, alongside Jeff Sessions, the much more visible attorney general. DeVos and Sessions both have a 42 percent unfavorability rating in that poll. When asked which Cabinet members are doing a “bad job,” 32 percent of respondents picked Sessions and 32 percent picked DeVos. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said DeVos is doing a worse job than her predecessors, with just 20 percent saying she’s doing better and 12 percent saying she’s doing about the same.
A recent Morning Consult/Politico poll had similar results: DeVos was Trump’s most unpopular Cabinet secretary, with a net favorability rating of -12 percent, followed by Sessions, who was at -4 percent.
And in June, New York Times columnist Gail Collins conducted a reader poll for worst Trump Cabinet member. DeVos won.
DeVos is now a household name for many Democrats ― so much so that she has essentially become a new boogeyman for 2018. Democratic candidates nationwide are mentioning her in their fundraising emails.
A Democratic operative who works on Senate races said that emails and communications about DeVos “tend to perform very strongly.”
Democratic groups certainly mounted a determined campaign against DeVos’ confirmation, and they continue to hammer her today. But they did that for a number of nominees, most of whom didn’t become as despised as the education secretary. What’s so different about DeVos?
In the Trump Cabinet, it turns out, you can more or less get away with being a plutocrat, a dilettante or a saboteur hostile to the very mission of the agency you mean to lead. You just can’t get away with being all three at once.
The Department of Education did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
A Disastrous Confirmation Hearing
Spend any time talking to people about DeVos, and what you’ll hear over and over is that she has no experience in public education. She never went to public school, never sent her kids to public school and never worked in a public school. (She did volunteer in one, however.)
What DeVos had was political connections, thanks to her family’s fortune. She’s a billionaire, the daughter-in-law of the co-founder of Amway, the multilevel marketing corporation. She’s long been active in the Michigan Republican Party and is a major donor.
“My family is the biggest contributor of soft money to the Republican National Committee,” she wrote in Roll Call in 1997. “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment.”
DeVos’ driving cause has been “school choice.” In Michigan, she led the push to use public dollars to pay for private school tuition through vouchers and other means. That experiment has been a success for banks and hedge funds, and a resounding failure for many students. A 2016 report by the Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit, concluded that under the model shaped by DeVos, “Michigan’s K-12 system is among the weakest in the country and getting worse. In little more than a decade, Michigan has gone from being a fairly average state in elementary reading and math achievement to the bottom 10 states. It’s a devastating fall.”
DeVos wasn’t an education expert. She was, as The Washington Post pointed out, essentially a lobbyist who used her money to push an agenda that didn’t have much evidence of success to back it up. Her defenders, however, say she is a passionate advocate of returning control of education to parents, so that they can decide how their money is used. She has used her money to commit herself to education, these defenders say, and she’s dedicated to helping children.
Democrats and education experts in certain circles knew about DeVos before Trump nominated her for education secretary. But she wasn’t widely recognizable ― until her confirmation hearing, that is.
DeVos’ performance at her January hearing may have been one of the worst ever for a Cabinet nominee. She didn’t know about a key federal law that protects students with disabilities. She tried to argue that guns may be acceptable in schools, saying a school out West, for example, might need to protect against grizzly bears. She confused two different ways to measure student achievement — by proficiency or by growth — even though they’re hot topics of debate in education circles. And she refused to commit to enforcing federal regulations meant to protect student borrowers from programs that leave them buried in debt with few employable skills.
“She seemed to know very little about public education,” said Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who was a member of the committee that questioned DeVos. “And of course, her office is one where someone should know an incredible amount about public education.”
DeVos’ disastrous performance translated to internet gold for the activists opposing her. Clips of DeVos struggling to answer questions from Democratic senators quickly went viral.
“To be honest, she just did all the work for us at the hearing,” said one Democratic congressional staffer who requested anonymity to speak openly. “She was so good at explaining how unqualified she was for the job.”
Franken was the one who questioned DeVos about the difference between the “proficiency” and “growth” approaches to measuring student achievement ― a difference that DeVos eventually admitted she didn’t know about.
“In the aftermath of her hearing, I did hear a tremendous amount about my questioning of her and the whole hearing in general,” Franken said.
About a week after the hearing, Franken was out to dinner with former Vice President Walter Mondale at a restaurant in Minneapolis. Mondale took the senator to the back of the restaurant to meet the staff.
“There was a guy who was carrying plates to wash, and he just said to me, ‘Thanks for your questions to DeVos. Please vote against her,’” Franken said. “This wasn’t someone who was a member of the teachers’ union, at least as far as I can tell. He was working in the kitchen. That happened a lot. It was people from all walks of life who were just taken with how bad that hearing was.”
Josh Nelson is deputy political director at the progressive activist group Credo, which mobilized against DeVos’ nomination. His group has done thousands of petitions over the past decade, but they’ve never seen anything like the response to DeVos.
“CREDO has fought to block the confirmation of more than a dozen Trump nominees and the campaign opposing Betsy DeVos resonated with our members more than any of the others,” Nelson said in an email. “Our petition generated 1,500,000 signatures ― far more than any other petition we have ever run... We believe it was the largest petition opposing a cabinet nominee in U.S. history.”
Their members also made more than 100,000 phone calls to Senate offices, working closely with unions ― the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association ― and other progressive groups. NEA said that in just one month, it sent more than 1.2 million emails and made more than 40,000 phone calls concerning DeVos’ confirmation.
Parents and teachers are highly networked. They organize school concerts, field trips, bake sales and all sorts of other events on a daily basis. As it turns out, they can also organize opposition to a Cabinet secretary.
“We’ve never had an outpouring like that,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia. “And by the way, those weren’t all our members.”
NEA members posted messages to Facebook urging others to oppose DeVos, Eskelsen Garcia said, and then “they called their friends and neighbors, they organized their church groups. They got a lot of parents and community folks to make those phone calls too.”
Some people have wondered whether DeVos has taken extra heat because she’s a woman ― one of just two in Trump’s Cabinet. Meghan McCain, author and daughter of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said she found the backlash to DeVos “a little sexist.”
Thurston Domina, an associate professor of education policy at the University of North Carolina, told NPR that DeVos is “no more clueless or ideologically awful than some other appointees, but we have a cultural role for a man who’s sort of a cowboy and comes in.” Because of this double standard, Domina said, DeVos comes off looking like a “lady who lunches.”
Eskelsen Garcia, the first female president of the NEA in 25 years, rejected the idea that DeVos is facing greater opposition because of her gender.
“Betsy DeVos is unpopular because of her policies,” she said. “Any attempt to make her somehow the victim of some kind of discrimination herself is absolutely not supported by anything I’ve ever seen.”
DeVos isn’t the first female education secretary ― that was Shirley Hufstedler, who held that position during the Carter administration. Most recently, Margaret Spellings served as education secretary from 2005 to 2009. Over the years, AFT has clashed with plenty of government officials ― including those in Democratic administrations. But there was a key difference, said Randi Weingarten, the union’s president: “There was always a common ground... about public education. They didn’t actively try to kill what is foundational to democracy.”
Republicans Speak Out Against DeVos
Pence had to cast a vote in his role as president of the Senate because two Republican senators ― Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska ― decided to join with a united Democratic caucus in opposing DeVos’ confirmation.
In a speech announcing her opposition, Collins expressed her surprise at DeVos’ unfamiliarity with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which had flummoxed the nominee during her hearing. Ultimately, Collins said, an education secretary needs to support strengthening public education.
“The mission of the Department of Education is broad, but supporting public education is at its core,” she said. “I am concerned that Mrs. DeVos’ lack of experience with public schools will make it difficult for her to fully understand, identify, and assist with those challenges, particularly for our rural schools in states like Maine.”
Murkowski, like Collins, is from a rural state and said she was concerned that DeVos wasn’t fully committed to helping students “who are not able to access an alternative choice in education as in so many of my communities.”
Also key to Murkowski’s opposition, she said, was the outpouring of disapproval from Alaskans.
“I have heard from thousands ― truly thousands of Alaskans who have shared their concerns about Mrs. DeVos as secretary of education,” she said in a speech on the Senate floor. “They’ve contacted me by phone, by email, in person. Their concerns center, as mine do, on Mrs. DeVos’ lack of experience with public education and the lack of knowledge she portrayed at her confirmation hearing.”
Alyse Galvin, a founding member of Great Alaska Schools, was a major spearhead of that opposition, which targeted both of the state’s senators. She and other education advocates in Alaska organized a “Betsy DeVos Tie-Breaker Telethon” on Facebook Live, urging people to call them and give their thoughts about DeVos. They then displayed the results and noted where they were coming from.
“It was a really obvious visual reminder to people about where Alaskans stood with DeVos,” Galvin said. The top reason people said they opposed DeVos was because of her lack of experience in public education.
“Every teacher ― and I would say a lot of parents ― know the name ‘Betsy DeVos,’” Galvin said. “And I would say most people in the nation, up until this year, have never known who their education secretary is... We’ve trusted that it’s going to work. When word got around that this person has never even set foot really as an educator in public education, there was no doubt that people were going to start paying attention.”
Republicans who oppose DeVos say it’s not against the party’s philosophy to support public education. Indeed, the vast majority of Americans send their children to public schools, and for the most part, people are happy with their local schools.
Ginny Evans is a high school teacher in a Dallas suburb and a member of the NEA. She voted for Trump.
“School choice is, to me... whether I’m going to have my child go to [public] school in Plano or go to school in Lewisville,” she said. “It’s not charter schools. I’m going to keep our dollars in public education. And there is no way our most vulnerable ― our special education kids ― there is no way they can even get the quality education that they deserve in a charter school. There’s not enough there.”
David Kinsella is a high school teacher in Prince William County, Virginia, who identifies as a moderate Republican (he didn’t vote for Trump). He, too, is a member of the NEA, and he said he doesn’t like that DeVos seems more interested in helping the “charter school industry” than helping public schools and the students who attend them. He noted that in many places, like Virginia, there isn’t much demand for charter schools. A genuinely conservative approach, he said, would be to respect those choices rather than pushing charter schools on communities.
“We’ve always had a history of supporting public schools,” he said. “I don’t know why suddenly we all have to change because Betsy DeVos arrives on the scene. All Republicans [aren’t] going to change their philosophy and say, ‘OK! Out with public schools. Let’s bring in the private charter schools and let’s help that industry and help them get ahead.’”
Pushing Forward In Office
DeVos may be in office, but the opposition to her hasn’t stopped.
Just days after her confirmation in early February, she decided to visit a middle school in Washington, D.C. She encountered protesters, who shouted “Shame!” and forced her to retreat to her car with her security detail.
“I respect peaceful protest and I will not be deterred in executing the vital mission of the Department of Education,” DeVos later said. “No school door in America will be blocked from those seeking to help our nation’s schoolchildren.”
Since then, DeVos has consistently faced protests.
One of the most notable protests occurred in May at Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black college in Daytona Beach, Florida. Students booed DeVos, who was giving a commencement address, and about half of the graduating students turned their backs on her.
Dominik Whitehead, a BCU graduate, was the lead organizer. He decided to do something about DeVos’ appearance at his alma mater after hearing that she had co-opted HBCUs for her own agenda, saying historically black schools were pioneers of ”school choice.” In reality, HBCUs were a response to Jim Crow laws that barred African-Americans from attending white schools. In other words, they didn’t really have much choice.
Ultimately Whitehead organized more than 60,000 people to sign online petitions objecting to DeVos’ speech.
DeVos has aggressively pushed her agenda since taking office, even though she had little support for her confirmation.
“You’d think that someone who came in in that manner would tiptoe carefully and adopt a listening posture and move with some humility,” said the congressional staffer. “We just haven’t seen that. She’s been gangbusters on a lot of things, particularly on our rolling back all sets of protections for students.”
After reportedly putting up an initial resistance, DeVos went along with the Trump administration’s decision to rescind protections for transgender students that allowed them to use the restroom that best corresponded to their gender identity.
DeVos rescinded Obama administration rules on how colleges should handle sexual assault, leaving advocates worried that the move could help shield those who have been accused. She withdrew consumer protections for student loan borrowers and reinstated heavy fees for some borrowers who default.
And in April, DeVos hired a woman to head the Office for Civil Rights who once claimed she’d experienced discrimination in college for being white.
“What she’s been effective in is creating a platform for herself and for her colleagues that now, people have to fight against,” Weingarten said. “So instead of taking the tremendous energy and aspiration and the hope and glow in the aftermath of changing No Child Left Behind and rolling up our sleeves to focus on teaching and learning, we’re back in the school wars. How is that fair to kids?”
“It’s breathtaking,” Warren said. “She doesn’t even pretend that she’s working for students... She has filled the room with for-profit college hacks and has clearly picked their side over and over. She’s been very effective at rolling back rules that were in place to try to get some accountability with the for-profit colleges.”
The fight has continued to energize activists and union members.
“We have never seen more energy than we’re seeing right now,” Eskelsen Garcia said. “We have actually had our phones ringing off the hooks. The increased activism of our members and parents and community leaders saying, ‘Put me in, Coach. What can I do to fight this horrible agenda of this secretary of education?’ We’ve never seen anyone in charge of public education and protecting students be so remiss in their job.”
“It’s awoken an activism by a lot of people who weren’t active before,” Weingarten said.
Warren has kept an eye on DeVos with a project called DeVos Watch. The oversight campaign focuses on how DeVos’ work affects student loan borrowers. Over the summer, Warren had a victory when she teamed up with Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to stop the Department of Education from giving management of the entire $1.2 trillion federal student loan portfolio to just one company, rather than the nine companies that currently manage it.
“You’d have a completely non-competitive market for the student loan serving and a too-big-to-fail company, making, I should say, hundreds of millions of dollars,” Warren said. “This is big money. And she just announced that this is how she’s going to do it.”
DeVos backed off from her plan after Blunt and Warren introduced their legislation.
“Change is possible. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it even with Betsy DeVos,” Warren said. “But you don’t get what you don’t fight for. And that’s why it’s important to be in these fights.”
DeVos is still moving forward where she can. Last week, she rescinded 72 documents that were intended to provide clarity about students’ rights and how schools can use federal money. The Education Department determined the documents were unnecessary.
One of the key federal laws they provided guidance on? The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ― which DeVos hadn’t heard of at her hearing just a few months ago.
Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed reporting.
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