Editorial: Goodbye to Betsy DeVos, who survived by accomplishing almost nothing
When Betsy DeVos took the job as the nation’s chief educator, she probably never imagined that a pandemic would strike, requiring her to exert actual leadership in extremely difficult circumstances. It’s a role for which she is utterly unqualified. From the time of her confirmation hearings, when she betrayed her ignorance about the controversy surrounding how best to measure student progress, it was clear that DeVos had neither the expertise nor the skills required for even the most basic version of the job.
What she did have were three goals, which became clear once she went to work: Push funding for private and religious schools at the expense of public schools; strip college students of protection from predatory for-profit colleges and place them in difficult financial straits on their student loans; and weaken civil rights protections for transgender students.
In other words, for a president who has no interest in improving the educational lot of students, DeVos has been a perfect and thus particularly long-serving Cabinet member.
As COVID-19 swept through the nation and shut down more than 120,000 schools, the Education Department’s role should have been one of the most important in government, just after those of the agencies trying to protect health and boost the economy. The loss of months of learning as students and teachers went online has been among the nation’s biggest disasters.
DeVos could have been supporting schools, lobbying for more money and personal protective gear to help them reopen, providing lesson plans and model online curriculum for them to follow, and conducting research on the best safety practices for on-campus learning. Instead, her main contributions were to tell schools they had to reopen full-time for all students even where health officials were saying it was still unsafe, and to try to funnel pandemic funding intended for disadvantaged students into private schools. The courts stopped that bit of fiscal malpractice.
Thankfully, the courts ruled against her often, especially on the question of whether students who had been duped by shady practices at certain for-profit colleges had to continue paying off their loans. In fact, the best news is that DeVos has accomplished very little during her tenure, stopped repeatedly by lawmakers and judges unwilling to go along with her agenda.
She has made a couple of positive contributions, which can be listed in far too short a paragraph. Her rewrite of sexual-assault rules for college campuses was more right than wrong, initiating important due-process protections for students accused of assault. She also has extended loan-repayment relief for college graduates who cannot manage the expense during the pandemic, a no-brainer.
But it’s time for actual work on the nation’s schools to begin. President-elect Joe Biden, who wants to reopen most schools by May, already has outlined two of the most pressing items: setting guidelines for when schools should reopen and how they should go about doing it, and getting more money to schools to cover the cost of the smaller classes and extra substitute teachers necessitated by the pandemic. Districts have been left to operate in the dark and on shoestring budgets.
The new administration needs to make safe reopening a top priority. Neither today’s kids nor the nation as a whole can afford to lose this much learning. It also must sketch out additional plans — which will cost more money — to bring the most left-behind students up to par.
A new, hopefully far more qualified Education secretary won’t forget about charter schools, which were supposedly a priority for DeVos but one she did little to advance. Biden has spoken out against for-profit charter schools, but close to 90% of charters are nonprofits that play an important role in allowing parents to choose schools that might work better for their children than the local public schools. That’s especially true as more charter schools have shown the willingness and ability to reopen on campus. Those efforts deserve support.
The new secretary should bring back strong oversight of for-profit colleges and refuse to provide federally backed student loans for colleges that aren’t performing as promised for students. He or she should retain most of Devos’ changes to the rules for investigating sexual assault on campus but reverse her dogged attacks against protections for transgender students.
The future calls for creative planning. Now that most students in the nation have been equipped with computers and broadband, how can those tools be used to improve their education once the pandemic is over? Remote learning might help us rethink education, though as an expansion rather than as a replacement. In addition, students equipped with these resources can do work that wasn’t possible in a pencil-and-paper world. A wise new Education secretary will take advantage of the lessons we’re learning now, demonstrating the leadership that DeVos hasn’t been able or willing to provide.
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