Perhaps the most heated disputes of DeVos’s tenure revolved around her energetic support for school choice, on which she speaks in passionate, personal terms.
Next month, Betsy DeVos will close out her run as the nation’s eleventh secretary of education. DeVos’s tenure has been unprecedented in many ways, from her outsider status to her contentious confirmation to the devastating pandemic that upended American education over the last year. I recently had the chance to chat with her about what she’s taken from the experience.
DeVos, a longtime champion of school choice and critic of traditional public-school systems, was greeted by an unrelenting fusillade of criticism from the very beginning. Most who’ve previously filled her office have been treated gently by the press and politicians. But her nomination had barely been announced before the New York Times ran a scathing critique blaming her for the state of Detroit’s schools, even though she’d never held any position with power over education in the city (or Michigan, for that matter).
In many ways, the Times story was a harbinger of what DeVos would face during her time in President Trump’s cabinet. Asked what she learned from her confirmation process, when the educational establishment came after her, late-night comedians mocked her, and Democrats voted unanimously to oppose her appointment, DeVos says, “It confirmed my belief that entrenched interests were going to do their best to protect the status quo, their power, and their jobs no matter what.”
While most who’ve served as secretary of education came to the role after careers in school systems, higher education, or state government, DeVos entered as an unapologetic outsider. She believes this had its benefits. “I didn’t know all the things you ‘can’t do,’ so I came in with fresh eyes and a laser focus on rethinking the way we approach all aspects of work at the Department,” she says. This was needed, she adds, because “the bureaucracy is 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.”
DeVos says, “It’s been truly disheartening to see just how far some people in Washington and elsewhere will go to distract from the abysmal results of ‘the system’ and protect their power.” But she says she tuned out the vitriol: “I focused on doing what’s best for students and didn’t allow baseless, and at times disgusting, attacks to distract me or take me off course.”
Perhaps the most heated disputes of DeVos’s tenure revolved around her energetic support for school choice, on which she speaks in passionate, personal terms. She offers up an anecdote as a distillation of her time in office. “I remember talking with a group of young African-American students in a school where they were benefiting from the Milwaukee voucher program and looking outside at a sea of middle-aged white protesters who apparently thought those students didn’t deserve that opportunity,” she says. “I think that’s a pretty good microcosm of what my experience in office was like.”