In her farewell letter to Congress, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called for the incoming administration’s education policies to be blocked, but Michiganders are against her.
HOLLAND, Mich.—Before returning to her home in Michigan at the end of her tenure as US secretary of education, Betsy DeVos sent a letter to Congress encouraging them to stymie and derail the education policies of incoming President-elect Joe Biden and continue the direction she set for the US education system instead.
“As I reflect on the past four years and the conversations we have had together, I wish to leave you with some encouragement and closing thoughts,” DeVos’ farewell opens. “The stakes for America’s students have never been higher than they are today. The decisions you make in the coming days, months, and years will determine a lot about the opportunities our children will get as they pursue their American Dream.”
But it’s the end of DeVos’ term at the White House that has Michiganders excited to welcome her home to Michigan. State educators, too, think the coming months will determine the future of education for US children—and they see a significant change in the policies of the Department of Education as what is needed.
Michigan is home to 15 state-funded universities, 28 public community colleges, 836 public school districts, and 56 intermediate school districts. And Michiganders are seeing hope that without DeVos at the helm, a number of her policies and decisions can be rethought to strengthen those systems.
Refocusing on Public Schools
In her farewell, DeVos took the time to again attack public schools, arguing that the pandemic has laid bare the failure of public education. DeVos has spent years lobbying Congress to instead focus on promoting private and religious schools in place of public education. She even used her control of the Department of Education to direct COVID-19 relief funds away from public schools and toward private schools, a policy courts later reversed.
DeVos’ promotion of religious schools in particular has been a focus of her career, once saying that separation of church and state policies that prevent taxpayer funding of Christian schools should be “assigned to the ash heap of history.”
That attitude has made former Detroit teacher and current vice president of Protect Our Public Schools, Ellen Offen, happy to see DeVos go.
“Secretary DeVos is a disgrace to every single child, parent, and teacher in Michigan and the entire country,” Offen told The ‘Gander. “She spent four years attacking public schools. She repeatedly tried funneling taxpayer money to for-profit private schools while cutting crucial programs. It’s time to have leaders who actually care about public schools and want to make public education a priority.”
Reevaluating Charter Schools
Another area DeVos spent significant resources on as secretary of education was the promotion of charter schools, an often for-profit alternative to public education. Protect Our Public Schools cited statistics showing that charter schools in Michigan broadly have underperformed compared to public schools, and yet they still received outsized support from DeVos.
Among other factors, her bias toward private, religious, and charter schools is why Kalamazoo Public Schools teacher Holly Bruning is glad to be rid of DeVos.
“She promotes charter schools because she’s able to pocket some money,” Bruning said to The ‘Gander. “DeVos is only committed to ensuring the success of charters even though statistically those institutions do not promote stronger or better students and historically treat teachers worse than public institutions. She’s a stain to American education.”
Restoring Accountability in College Sexual Assault Cases
Another area DeVos specifically called on Congress to protect her legacy is in the alterations she made to the interpretations of Title IX, which she has used to give college students accused of committing sexual assault more protections.
Michigan sued DeVos over that policy, arguing that it made Michigan campuses less safe.
“I find it appalling that the Department of Education would spend its time and resources on weakening protections for sexual assault and harassment victims on school campuses here in Michigan and across this nation,” Nessel said announcing the lawsuit late last summer. “This is a blatant disregard for the pain and fear victims of sexual assault and harassment face, and discourages reporting of these offenses.”
According to Nessel, sexual harassment, assault, and other forms of misconduct is rampant in American schools, including in Michigan. In grades 7-12, 56% of girls and 40% of boys are sexually harassed. In college, nearly two-thirds of both men and women will experience sexual harassment, her office said.
Those numbers might not even provide the full picture. The Department of Justice found that among survivors of sexual assault, for instance, 80% of cases went unreported.
Though, to reverse this policy, the Biden administration may have its work cut out for it. Sage Carson, manager at the anti-sexual violence organization KnowYourIX, told HuffPost that it’s far harder to undo changes to Title IX than it is to prevent those changes to begin with. In other words, DeVos has created an uphill fight for the incoming administration.
Rethinking College Tuition
In her farewell, DeVos also doubled down on her charge against student debt forgiveness and free college tuition, which in December she called “insidious” policies. But the current situation is crushing Michiganders.
“I worked full time and only took out government loans (thinking they would not be as bad as private) and I worked 32-40 hours a week while in school because my loans only covered classes: no books or living expenses and for two years I had to pay 4,000 a year for classes out of pocket,” Western Michigan University graduate Molly Metheny told The ‘Gander. “I had $28,000 in loans. I picked the payment plan that was based on what I earned for repayment. I paid for four years and owed just under $34,000; $6,000 more than I owed before deferring by the end of 2016.”
In the argument between DeVos and Metheny, conservatinve-leaning financial publication Forbes sides with Metheny. Forbes called DeVos’ claims of a “socialist takeover” of education partisan, off-base, and using intentionally misleading statistics. Further, Forbes reported, each argument against debt forgiveness DeVos cited had major factual omissions.
And DeVos’ position has Metheny feeling as though she’s been left high and dry by her government.
“I just know I’ve given up hope on the government investing in its people,” Metheny said. “They don’t see us as the future or important. We have to come up with a way on our own.”
Returning to Educators Leading Education Policy
A major criticism Michigan teachers have always had about DeVos is that she simply wasn’t one of them. DeVos lacked a background as an educator, something teachers argue is necessary for a secretary of education.
“She’s a horrible and exceptionally biased individual that never deserved to hold the title as secretary of education. She has absolutely no knowledge or appreciation of the public school system,” Bruning said. “The secretary of education should have minimal qualifications such as: working as a teacher for a minimum number of years; worked in public education; have a semblance of educational administration; be unbiased with private, charter, and public schools; be able to identify methods to actually alter our educational system to ensure that we improve on our math and reading abilities, and other things.”
That, too, is something Kimberly Eberhard of East China School District is grateful for.
Miguel Cardona, Biden’s pick to succeed DeVos, has had practical experience in classrooms, and Eberhard is optimistic about what that will mean for policy.
“[DeVos] is not qualified for the job she was gifted,” Eberhard told The ‘Gander. “As an education commissioner, a public school parent, and a former public school classroom teacher, one would assume [Cardona] understands how challenging education has been for students, educators, and parents, not just this year, during Trump, but for decades.”