'This Building Has Caused More Problems Than It Solved'
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on schooling during COVID-19, the future of higher ed, and why her cabinet department probably shouldn't exist at all
Betsy DeVos became President Donald Trump's education secretary on February 7, 2017, following Vice President Mike Pence's vote to break a Senate deadlock—an inauspicious first for a Cabinet-level confirmation. Furious opposition to her nomination came from the nation's teachers unions: American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called DeVos an "ideological" opponent of public education.
But DeVos' tenure has shown that she's an ideological opponent, not of public education, but of public education managed by federal bureaucrats. And she includes herself in that.
"I would not be at all unhappy to work myself out of a job," she says.
A former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, DeVos was known as an advocate for vouchers, charter schools, and more educational options for parents well before President Trump offered her the nation's top ed job. These issues became even more relevant in 2020, after the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close or go virtual, leaving millions of families in the lurch. With teachers unions all over the country fighting on behalf of their members to stop schools from reopening, many parents might be feeling ideologically opposed to the K–12 status quo as well.
While school choice is DeVos' signature issue, her tenure as secretary will probably be best remembered for implementing significant changes to Title IX, the federal statute that prohibits sexual harassment and discrimination in education. During the Obama years, heavy-handed guidance in the form of a "Dear Colleague" letter from the federal Office for Civil Rights caused colleges to abandon norms of due process in sexual misconduct hearings. DeVos spent two years writing a new rule that would restore basic fairness to these procedures. It formally took effect on August 14.
Much like DeVos herself, the new rules are a lightning rod—and deeply unpopular with a host of policy makers and advocates who say the secretary is callously making college campuses less safe for women. Sen. Patty Murray (D–Wash.) has accused DeVos of "silencing survivors." The activist group Know Your IX predicted that sexual violence would increase as a result of the administration's actions.
In August, Reason's Robby Soave interviewed the secretary in her offices at the Department of Education in D.C.—a building that "has done more harm than good," according to DeVos. "I view this department as one that probably never should have been stood up," she says.
Reason: COVID-19 is an unprecedented crisis. So many school districts have to make difficult choices. But at the same time, many experts think it's really important for kids to have in-person learning. Here in Washington, D.C., they're not going to reopen schools until at least November. What should schools be prioritizing as they make decisions on whether to reopen?
DeVos: I think they should be prioritizing getting kids back to school in person. The data suggest that in most places across the country, it's perfectly safe to do so, and in fact, they should do so. Arguably, it's more unsafe for the kids not to be in school by multiple measures, whether it's mental health, social-emotional growth, academic growth. We know for a fact that there are places where children are being harmed because they're either left alone or they're with someone who is harming them. The notion that getting back to school—we all say when it's safe—but it's been elusive to find out from some people what they deem safe.
It would be one thing if we knew the disease would be completely eradicated by January 1—maybe you would just say, "OK, no school this semester." But it's never magically going away.
And kids are only 5-year-olds once, or 8-year-olds. You miss those months or that time period, you can't ever get that back. That's a significant part of the kid's life.
Can virtual learning ever work for kids of that age? Can you teach a child to read or to do basic arithmetic through a screen?
There are kids for whom distance learning, virtual learning, works very well. But for most kids, they need to be together with other kids. They need to be with their peers, with their teachers. The reality is that families ultimately need to have more choices to do what's right for each of their children.
If there's anything that this pandemic has shown us, it's what I've been talking about for decades: Kids have got to have more choices, and the whole K–12 system has got to be changed to allow for and facilitate those kinds of choices on the part of parents.
The same kind of educational regime doesn't work for every single student.
Right. I think we're going to see inevitably a lot of changes that parents will develop on their own. We're never going to go back to K–12 school as we knew it, I don't believe. But the ones that I feel most heartbroken about are the [disadvantaged kids] for whom I fought for 30 years, who aren't going to have those same opportunities right now. That's an injustice that I simply find untenable.
A lot of the opposition to in-person learning in public schools is coming from teachers unions right now. Many parents who don't have the financial resources for private or pod-based learning are frustrated by that. Do you share those frustrations?
Yes. They're not only fighting it but making parents who are trying to figure out something that's going to work for their children feel guilty in doing so. Again, I think this whole situation is pointing out the need for the system in general to be changed dramatically. The teachers unions have clearly laid their cards out. They are about protecting a system and protecting adult jobs. They're not about doing what's right for children.
Their most persuasive argument would be, "Well, we have to advocate on behalf of our older teachers or immunocompromised teachers." Do you think maybe those people should not return to work?
There are undoubtedly families for whom having their child in a distance learning environment is the right answer for that child. Well, there's no reason why those older teachers or immunocompromised teachers couldn't be teaching those children remotely. But that should be the exception, not the rule.
Congress' pandemic relief plan included $13 billion for schools. Can you talk a little bit about how those funds are being allocated? Some have said you have allowed them to be spent in a manner akin to vouchers—to go toward options other than traditional public schools.
We've got a small portion of that $13 billion that is going into some competitive grants to introduce some more imaginative solutions in K–12 schools. Then the governors also got $3 billion to use as they see fit in their states to meet the needs of kids because of the virus. We're seeing some real good creative approaches to that.
A couple of the governors have decided to do microgrants to families, which will address some of these issues very directly. Parents who decide they want to put a little micro-school together, maybe this can help defray some of their costs. And the same thing for those who decide they want to homeschool. But we've also seen that in the states where the governors are doing that, they're immediately being legally challenged by those who want to see the one-size-fits-all system continue to prevail.
There was a story local to Massachusetts, where the Department of Children and Families had put out some guidance to teachers saying that as they're doing virtual learning they should ask kids, "Did you have breakfast today?" or "How's your mental health?" The concern being, you could ask some 6-year-old, and maybe he forgot to eat breakfast, and now there's going to be a child services investigation.
Obviously, there's genuine abuse that people need to be vigilant for. But that level of inviting the state into people's homes starts to worry me as a libertarian. I'm concerned that at this stressful time for parents, you're just giving them another thing to worry about.
Absolutely. Or Tennessee, where there was a school district that sent out notices to parents asking for a waiver to ensure parents wouldn't eavesdrop on their children's classes. This is ridiculous. Or the Denver school board, who sent the letter to all of their families saying, "We highly discourage this pod formation. And by the way, if you do form a pod, don't unenroll your child, because we need that funding." It's just….
Heads you lose, tails I win.
Some parents during this distance learning experiment have perhaps seen the quality of the curriculum.
Or lack thereof. I think parents are much more aware of their children's education today than they were six or eight months ago. Whether they have a robust curriculum; whether they're learning things that they personally feel are consistent with their own family's values. There's a lot of concern on the part of a lot of parents.
You are someone who has advocated for more choice, more local decision making, in education. But then you were thrust into the role of national education official. It had to be tempting to use that position to really push local governments to implement more of the ideas that you have. But your idea is that there shouldn't be some person in charge of telling everyone what to do. Do you ever feel this tension?
I do. The previous administration went exactly the opposite direction and overreached in multiple areas. Much of what I've had to do is come back and undo a lot of that. But at the same time, there are plenty of folks who've been critical of my not implementing all kinds of conservative policies that, in my view, would be desirable for students and their families. But I think my [approach] here has been one of restraint, and that I believe is ultimately a big accomplishment.
I view this department as one that probably never should have been stood up. I think there are ample arguments for it having gotten more in the way of students and their futures than actually being any kind of value-add.
Should the Department of Education be abolished—or gradually abolished, perhaps?
I would not be at all unhappy to work myself out of a job. I think that states and local communities and, most importantly, the family has to be the epicenter of these decisions. The 40 years since this department has existed, there's been over a trillion dollars spent to close the achievement gaps. They haven't closed one little bit. They've only opened in multiple areas. So why would we continue to advocate for doing more of the same thing and expect something different?
President Trump announced an executive order in March 2019 on campus free speech. For people who want colleges and universities to be more respectful of free speech, should the direction to do that come from the federal government?
I think it's more about pursuing egregious complaints about the lack of respect for free speech—making examples of those institutions that deny it for whatever purpose—than to try to regulate it. Because if we tried to regulate free speech in the manner that we think appropriate, it would undoubtedly get twisted in a future administration to do just the opposite.
So much of this rhetoric and so much of the cancel culture…well, I think you can draw a direct line back to the previous administration in this building really helping foster a lot of what we see today in college campuses. I think even beyond that, the abject failure of the K–12 system to ensure students have a well-rounded understanding of American history and civics—we see students today that have no idea what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were, much less even knowing who Lincoln or Douglas were.
We're seeing the results of a lack of education, a lack of understanding, a lack of preparation. I think what I have tried to do here is ensure that the rules that we have put forward, or the ones that we have pulled back on, have respected constitutional protections and have pointed to the fact that the public sphere is where these debates have to happen. We have got to protect people's rights to have those debates.
It's not just conservative speakers and conservative professors getting shut down by their students. There are plenty of examples of a professor saying something "anti-American," and it gets recorded, and then there are conservatives calling for the person to be disciplined. It's not like this only exists on the left, right?
That's true. But I think there's a greater preponderance of it on the left. If you really embrace and respect freedom of speech, then you have to acknowledge that some of the things you hear from someone else you're not going to like, and that's OK. But you have to be able to deal with it, and debate it, and discuss it. We don't see nearly enough of that, primarily on one side, but I think it is a broader issue.
On the higher-education front, many kids are discovering that if you went into debt to get a degree, and it does not qualify you for the job you expected, maybe it wasn't worth it. This speaks to concrete government policy: the subsidization of student loans. Is that something the government should be doing?
I think it's a very valid question and one that needs to be wrestled with going forward. There are far too many students that are taking on inordinate amounts of debt for programs that aren't compensating at the kind of level that you would expect. But one of the things that we've done that I think has been very useful and will become increasingly useful is [providing] the additional information on the college scorecard by field of study at every institution. What it costs and what you're going to earn the first year upon graduation, based on real data from students who have completed those programs.
I suspect that if used well, it's going to weed out a lot of really bad programs. Schools are going to conclude that they should no longer be offering them—at least, they should conclude that. Students, I hope, will conclude that pursuing them is not going to result in what they hoped and will perhaps choose something different.
At least not if you're going to have to go $50,000 or $100,000 into debt for it.
Right. Again, I think COVID is going to reveal a lot of other alternatives and options. It may be a certificate program or shorter-term learning of something that is going to get you into a job more quickly than perhaps sitting out and waiting for your higher-ed institution to decide they're going to conduct in-person classes again. There's been very strong growth in a lot of these online schools in the last number of years.
I think that's going to only increase as students decide to either spend a whole bunch of money to go to a school "in-person" but remote vs. doing something at your own speed. Online learning for a college student is a significantly different proposition than a kindergartener.
Let's turn to Title IX. This has been perhaps the major initiative your administration has undertaken: reforming how sexual misconduct adjudication happens on campus. These are changes that are very popular with certain civil liberties groups but have also been wildly unpopular with victims' rights activists. What was your thought process for deciding that this was a fight worth having? Did you know how controversial it was going to be?
Well, I knew anecdotally coming in about the problem that the [Obama administration's] "Dear Colleague" letter had resulted in. As soon as I got a broader understanding of the horrible results that were being realized across the country, it was clear that it was something that I was going to have to tackle. Doing the right thing for students is what I'm here for. It was clear that that had to be dealt with in order to ensure we were doing the right thing for students.
Was the "Dear Colleague" letter characteristic of the approach the previous administration took with education matters?
The Obama and Biden administration was all about getting headlines and talking a good line but not about getting results. Well, they did get results, but they were unjust results. We know that because more than 170 [Title IX cases] have been overturned, and that's just a representative sample of, I think, what's really going on.
I remember one of the roundtables that I had in preparation to going out and doing the rulemaking. It was a young man who went to a college in Georgia. He had actually worked for a railroad for a number of years, and I think had been in the military at some point, then had gone back to school as a little bit older student and was just a few weeks shy of graduation. Suddenly, he was informed via an email on his computer that he could not step foot on campus any longer.
There was a campus-wide alert sent out saying, "This is a dangerous person." He was charged with sexual assault, and he had no idea who was bringing the complaint, what he had done, what happened. And that went on for years, actually.
I'm pleased to say, now, I understand he is in his final year of law school. I don't think he's ever gotten full justice from his college, but there were folks who heard his story and helped.
Was there any group or individual response to the reforms that has really surprised you, either positively or negatively?
How can the [American Civil Liberties Union] call themselves the ACLU and file against this, specifically against due process protections? But it wasn't a surprise. They've shown themselves to not exactly be for civil liberties.
Could a new administration just say, "Nope, we're going back to the old 'Dear Colleague' Title IX standard as soon as the administration changes"?
Well, the only way it could be done is through a Congressional Review Act or reregulating, which would have to go through the whole [Administrative Procedures Act] process again. I think it would be very hard to turn back. It, obviously, would be terribly ill-advised, because what we have here is a very well-thought-out, balanced, fair rule that treats everyone rightly and fairly.
Have the last four years gone by quickly for you?
Well, it's only been three and a half, but it has gone very quickly. The temptation for anyone in this role is to implement policy that is reflective of your political persuasion or philosophy. I don't think that's the right way to approach policy, particularly from this building. I think I've continued to be very circumspect about that, because I know what I had to come in and undo. This building has caused more problems than it solved.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.