Education Secretary Betsy DeVos insists that everything she does at the department is aimed at getting the federal government out of local schools, making good on that populist campaign promise from President Trump while his big-ticket legislative goals remain mired in Congress.
Whether it’s replacing Obama-era school dictates with flexible guidelines or boosting school choice programs in districts across the country, the federal footprint in education is shrinking, Mrs. DeVos said.
Washington’s education establishment is not happy with the change of course. Teachers unions and liberal activists decry the retreat and accuse the Trump administration of leaving children and college students at the mercy of for-profit schools.
But breaking apart the “government-run education monopoly,” as Mr. Trump described it during the presidential race, was precisely why he chose Mrs. DeVos.
She is a longtime crusader for charter schools and voucher programs that allow federal funds to pay tuition at private and religious schools.
“If my work in education over the last three decades has taught me anything, it’s that parents and local leaders — not Washington bureaucrats — know best. As secretary, everything I do is focused on empowering them and getting the federal government out of their way,” Mrs. DeVos told The Washington Times.
As with other Cabinet agencies under Mr. Trump, the big changes to date at the Education Department have been made on regulatory and policy fronts, reversing President Obama’s legacy and changing the direction of the ship of state.
But the inability of the Republican-run Congress to produce on the legislative front has left Mr. Trump with Obamacare still on the books, while major tax reforms and a massive infrastructure program are still far from passage.
In the first six months of the Trump administration, the Education Department has undertaken a top-to-bottom review of its regulations, trimmed the department’s workforce through attrition and put the brakes on several rules issued under Mr. Obama.
Mrs. DeVos created a consolidated state plan that gave schools more flexibility in complying with the Every Student Succeeds Act. The bipartisan legislation passed under Mr. Obama was supposed to hold schools accountable for student performance but was widely criticized for imposing damaging and overly prescriptive mandates on public school systems.
She rolled back a student loan repayment rule that was supposed to simplify student debt forgiveness for victims of lender fraud, but it faced resistance from some in the higher education community, including administrators at historically black colleges and universities.
She also nixed a “gainful employment” rule that was intended show students the relationship between student debt and projected income from their fields of study and deny federal loans at schools where the debt-to-income gap was too high.
DeVos spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill said the Obama administration’s selective approach to this rule was a thinly veiled attempt to target and cripple a specific sector — for-profit schools — that they did not like.
Nearly every move was met with fierce opposition, especially from the American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s two major teachers unions and a fierce defender of public schools.
“Just like the climate change deniers, Betsy DeVos is a public school denier,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “She has lived up to our concern that she would be the most anti-public-education secretary of education ever.”
Mrs. DeVos has battled teachers unions since she began her school choice advocacy at home in Michigan. The AFT spearheaded opposition that nearly derailed her Senate confirmation, which she won in 50-50 vote with Vice President Mike Pence breaking the tie in her favor.
Ms. Weingarten said the secretary was running the same playbook she used in Michigan for “defunding, destabilizing, privatizing public schools and hurting kids.”
“She’s proposed a budget that takes a meat cleaver to public schools and eliminates after-school programs, community schools and funding to lower class sizes,” said the union leader. “She’s sided with predatory lenders and for-profits over students and recent graduates who are being crushed by debt or were sold a phony degree, and she’s rolling back the Department of Education’s obligation to protect the civil rights of all kids, most particularly transgender kids and young women in college, while pushing for failed choice and voucher plans that have a track record of harming rather than helping children.”
Mrs. DeVos has not won every battle. The Education Department announced Tuesday that it was shelving plans to radically streamline the federal student loan servicing program by designating a single company to collect student debt payments on behalf of the federal government. Critics said the plan would give too much power to one company and put student borrowers at a disadvantage.
The outrage on the left underscores Mrs. DeVos’ aggressive moves to carry out her mission.
She said the job continues to invigorate her.
“As I travel across the country, I am energized by those who are eager to put the needs of students at the center of education reform,” said Mrs. DeVos. “We still have much work left to do, but we are well on our way to achieving that goal with the support of the president and Americans at the grass-roots level advocating for change.”
She added, “We can make good on our promise to provide every child in America equal access to a world-class education.”