School choice is finally getting prime-time attention as President Donald Trump makes the issue a focal point of his reelection bid, appealing to parents clamoring for an alternative to neighborhood public schools during the pandemic.
But the policy issue’s biggest cheerleader, his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has been kept out of that spotlight.
DeVos isn’t so much as getting a cameo during the Republican National Convention this week, even as the president builds his second-term ambitions around the cause DeVos has championed for the past 30 years. The billionaire’s public image is synonymous with “education freedom” or “school choice,” political shorthand for using government money or tax credits to help pay for kids to attend private schools, home instruction or other programs instead of their regular public school. It also encompasses charter schools, public schools that are independently run.
Trump’s campaign did not respond to questions about why DeVos was excluded from the lineup. From the secretary’s own team, Education Department spokesperson Angela Morabito said DeVos “has never sought the spotlight” and is instead “focused on doing what’s best for students, and making sure they have a voice in the debate.”
Among the core fan club for school choice, DeVos is still a star. In the eyes of Democratic political strategists, she has long been seen as the perfect villain to help drum up dissent against the president. So the polarizing secretary is not an obvious choice for locking up new votes or turning a wavering electorate into a Trump-supporting contingent, argues Jeffrey Henig, director of the politics and education program for the Teachers College at Columbia University.
“The evangelical and private religious school constituency is on board for Trump already. Charter school supporters could be valuable for Trump to mobilize, but they mistrust DeVos,” Henig said.
Plus, Henig added, “She’s done poorly in some public presentations.”
During her Senate confirmation hearing, DeVos suggested guns could be used in schools to fend off grizzly bear threats. Earlier this year, she committed to personally finance a scholarship for a Philadelphia fourth grader featured in the president’s State of the Union address, before the Philadelphia Inquirer revealed that the girl already attended one of Philadelphia’s most sought-after charter schools. As Trump tried this summer to promote the full reopening of schools, DeVos stumbled during Sunday talk show appearances, at one point asserting that data showed no danger for kids returning to classrooms.
In addition, DeVos has repeatedly received the lowest favorability rating of any Cabinet secretary in the Trump administration and is often criticized for leading a lavish lifestyle with a fleet of private helicopters, boats and vacation homes.
For more than three and a half years, DeVos has boosted school choice on Trump’s behalf, sticking with it as a member of the president’s Cabinet despite the exodus of 10 other secretaries in that time. Now her life’s work is earning broad exposure at the convention and piquing the interest of parents disappointed with the virtual education their local public schools have served up during the pandemic.
School districts throughout the country are reporting drastic declines in enrollment this school year, including a 5.5 percent drop in enrollment among elementary school students in Broward County, Fla., the sixth-largest school district in the country. Anchorage schools could face up to a $30.1 million decline in revenue this fiscal year due to thousands of students leaving, the Anchorage Daily News reported last week.
Speaking to school choice advocates last month on a video conference, DeVos said there are “many, many children today across our country that are in schools that are simply not working for them.” New polling suggests a growing contingent of voters agree.
In a survey of more than 1,000 adults, the annual PDK Poll on attitudes toward public schools found that four in 10 respondents said they support adding local charter schools, even if it means reducing the amount of funding available for traditional public schools. That’s up from 28 percent in 2005.
In listing just two second-term priorities on Sunday, Trump said he would “love to see school choice.” Speakers at the Republican nominating convention have gone on to raise the issue multiple times. First lady Melania Trump committed to use her “Be Best” campaign to “support education that supports a child’s individual needs” if her husband wins four more years in the White House. Donald Trump Jr. argued that, “if Democrats really wanted to help minorities in underserved communities, instead of bowing to big-money union bosses, they’d let parents choose what school is best for their kids.”
Vice President Mike Pence in a video highlighted a Wisconsin boy who used a school choice voucher to go to a different school. On Wednesday, the GOP convention featured Tera Myers, an Ohio woman whose son has Down syndrome, who spoke about how school choice helped her child’s “dreams come true.”
DeVos didn’t even get a role in a video montage during the convention about female leaders in the Trump administration.
Rick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, argues DeVos is still “hugely appreciated” and “an icon” for people who are passionate about school choice in conservative circles.
“She is quite beloved,” Hess said. “She’s speaking and communicating with audiences which are excited to hear from her.”
The Trump campaign previously used DeVos as an asset to help connect with voters on school choice policy. The education secretary was among the dozens of surrogates the campaign tapped for its show of force during the Iowa caucuses in February. DeVos also traveled to Wisconsin with Pence for an official event promoting school choice. She headlined a Women for Trump campaign rally earlier this year, alongside the vice president.
DeVos has continued to make the rounds at events for a core constituency of school choice supporters, like her participation last month in the video conference hosted by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative group that supports school choice. During the conference, the education secretary talked about her proposal for “education freedom scholarships,” which would create a $5 billion federal tax credit for donations to scholarship-granting organizations to pay for students to attend private schools or expand their public education options.
Legislation to advance that goal, however, has not made significant progress.
DeVos has tested the bounds of her power as education secretary to boost school choice during the pandemic. When Congress laid out billions of dollars in coronavirus relief money under the CARES Act in March, she created a rule to divert more of that funding toward private schools than the usual formula. But a federal judge in California this week halted the secretary’s effort in at least eight states and some of the nation’s largest public school districts.
Unions and Democrats have also assailed DeVos’ decision to devote some of the aid to “microgrants” for families to use for remote learning and technology.
At the same time, many charter and private schools throughout the country have fielded a record number of applications in recent weeks, as less than half of traditional public schools fully reopen for in-person learning.
In California, nearly 90 percent of the schools and districts that have been granted waivers to open elementary campuses are private schools, according to new state data released this week. Also in the Golden State, a chain of online charter schools that promises “individual attention” stopped accepting applications this month after the wait list reportedly grew to almost 9,000 families, far outpacing the roughly 6,000 students enrolled in the program.
DeVos has been a lightning rod throughout her tenure, fomenting a groundswell of opposition, including for her policy on Title IX rules for how schools should handle allegations of sexual assault. And that tension has intensified during the pandemic, as she continues her advocacy for school choice policies and reopening of public schools.
Last week, protesters stood outside DeVos’ home in Lake Macatawa with a “Wake Up Betsy” banner, demanding she suspend in-person classes during the pandemic.
While calling for in-person instruction to resume in schools, DeVos has parroted Trump’s threats to yank funding from those that don’t fully reopen. But during a visit to a Georgia high school on Tuesday, DeVos addressed what she called a “misunderstanding” about the administration’s position on in-person learning.
“No, the expectation is that there’s 100 percent learning in a way that’s going to work for each family and each student, and importantly, in each community and each school,” she said, according to ABC News.
The struggle to reopen schools this fall has become the latest reason to oppose DeVos. Democrats and public school advocates say she has been missing in action, triggering a Twitter retort from the secretary that only led to more criticism of her.
“We would expect a Secretary of Education to play a leadership role in securing the safety of students, as in school shootings and now this pandemic,” said Dan Domenech, director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “However, this Secretary’s actions seem to run counter to that practice, wanting to divert much needed public funding to private schools and insisting that schools reopen in disregard to safety and the scientific guidelines.”
“It’s unfortunate that being MIA, at this moment, may be a good thing,” he said.