Expanding Opportunities for Students is DeVos's Legacy
Betsy DeVos abruptly stepped down as Secretary of Education in the wake of the unprecedented tumult at the U.S. Capitol. How should we summarize her legacy? Despite the limitations of her office to truly effect change, she clearly made a bold mark for a life-changing cause she deeply believes in—school choice.
DeVos finishes as one of the longest-serving Cabinet members in the waning Trump administration. During her term she endured more than her fair share of vitriol, mostly fueled by union leaders who carried grudges over her political support for school choice at the state level.
As of February 2017, when DeVos was sworn in, 25 states combined to provide vouchers, tax credits or savings accounts to nearly 400,000 students whose families used the extra funds to choose private education. Throughout her tenure, DeVos sought to expand such opportunities to even more students, regardless of where they lived.
President Trump originally campaigned on providing $20 billion for school choice. Families in need of educational alternatives awaited a more detailed proposal, even as some supporters raised reasonable questions about the dangers of overreach and entanglement that could come with federal dollars.
No plan of that size ever materialized in the Republican-led Congress. Federal lawmakers eventually unveiled a smaller bill to create Education Freedom Scholarships, but only after union-friendly Democrats regained charge of the House. While that ultimately doomed the initiative, DeVos never shied away from the role of champion.
As proposed, Education Freedom Scholarships would not have touched dollars from the federal treasury, which would have brought restrictive strings for families and schools. Instead, their proponents sought to encourage charitable giving for student needs through a $5 billion pool of tax credits. The idea was to let states set the parameters for who could use the dollars and how, with the federal government granting remarkably broad latitude.
Smaller-scale efforts to enhance parental choice had a mixed record during DeVos’s tenure. Thanks to a broader federal tax reform law, families can now use tax-exempt dollars in a 529 college savings plan to cover private K-12 tuition costs. Some states offer further tax benefits, which can make it easier to afford more education options. While some families can take advantage of the 529 strategy, others lack the financial resources to do so.
Students from lower-income families still face lingering obstacles to greater opportunities, and they could benefit from changes in federal funding patterns. Two rounds of coronavirus relief, totaling nearly $70 billion, have been approved for elementary and secondary schools. Congress has channeled all the money through the same old broken formula, which disproportionately favors students in larger districts over smaller districts and charter and private schools.
To her credit, DeVos fought in court, albeit unsuccessfully, for virus relief funds to be shared more fairly with students in nonpublic schools. Going forward, though, policymakers should direct some share of the next massive federal aid package to families who lack access to in-person instruction or need support for at-home learning expenses.
DeVos’s greatest work may have been to speak out consistently and forcefully on behalf of the primary role parents play in directing their children’s education. In particular, she defended the educational choices of poor and minority families.
“Any family that has the economic means and the power to make choices is doing so for their children,” DeVos said, rebuking “60 Minutes” reporter Lesley Stahl for her inaccurate charges about Michigan charter schools. “I’m fighting for the parents who don’t have those choices. We need all parents to have those choices.”
Over nearly four years leading the U.S. Department of Education, DeVos has ruffled more than a few feathers. As she steps down, the battles over educational choice will continue, especially at the state level.
Opponents of choice can be expected to define those debates much as they have sought to frame her agenda, in terms of competing forms of schooling: district vs. charter, or public vs. private. But DeVos insisted that such an approach is misplaced. “Instead of dividing the public when it comes to education, the focus should be on the ends, not the means,” she said. “Adults should stop fighting over students and start fighting for students.”